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In Italian folklore, Befana
Befana
(pronounced [beˈfaːna]) is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to St Nicholas
St Nicholas
or Santa Claus.[1] A popular belief is that her name derives from the Feast of Epiphany or in Catholic La Festa dell'Epifania. Epifania is a Latin word with Greek origins meaning "manifestation (of the divinity)."[2][3] Some suggest that Befana
Befana
is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strenia.[4] In popular folklore Befana
Befana
visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child's family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana.[3] She is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.[citation needed] She is also referred to as the Christmas
Christmas
Witch.

Contents

1 Legend 2 History 3 The Befana
Befana
today 4 Poems and songs[11] 5 See also 6 References 7 External links

Legend[edit] Christian legend had it that Befana
Befana
was approached by the biblical magi, also known as the Three Wise Men
Three Wise Men
(or the three kings) a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Son of God
Son of God
was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana
Befana
had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana
Befana
is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy ("caramelle") or fruit, while the bad children get coal ("carbone"), onions or garlic.[3] Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana
Befana
was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus
Jesus
being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus
Jesus
and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus
Jesus
was delighted, and he gave La Befana
Befana
a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy. Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana
Befana
one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn't wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds. Another commonly heard Christian legend of La Befana
Befana
starts at the time of the birth of baby Jesus.[5] Befana
Befana
spends her days cleaning and sweeping. One day the magi, also known as the three wise men, came to her door in search of baby Jesus. Befana
Befana
turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. Befana
Befana
notices a bright light in the sky; she thinks this is the way to baby Jesus. She brought some baked goods and gifts for baby Jesus
Jesus
in her bag and took her broom to help the new mother clean and began her search for baby Jesus. She searched and searched for Baby Jesus, but never found him. Befana
Befana
still searches today, after all these centuries. On the eve of the Epiphany, Befana comes to a house where there is a child and leaves a gift. Although she has been unsuccessful in her search, she still leaves gifts for good young children because the Christ Child can be found in all children.[6] History[edit] Befana
Befana
was never a widespread tradition among the whole Italian people. Having originated in Rome
Rome
and having become well known and practiced by the rest of the population only during the last century, it keeps on being strongly followed prominently in the capital region and central Italy,[citation needed] where it was the only traditional figure giving gifts to children before Santa Claus' tradition in the recent decades. Many people believe that the name Befana
Befana
is derived from the Italians' mispronunciation of the Greek word epifania or epiphaneia (Greek, επιφάνεια = appearance, surface, English: epiphany). Others point to the name being a derivative of Bastrina, the gifts associated with the goddess Strina. In the book Domestic Life in Palestine, by Mary E. Rogers (Poe & Hitchcock, 1865) the author notes:

"But an 'Essay on the Fine Arts,' by E. L. Tarbuck, led me to believe that this custom is a relic of pagan worship, and that the word "Bastrina" refers to the offerings which used to be made to the goddess Strenia. We could hardly expect that the pagans who embraced Christianity could altogether abandon their former creeds and customs. Macaulay says, "Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity; the rites of the Pantheon passed into her 'worship, and the subtilties of the Academy into her creed.' Many pagan customs were adopted by the new Church. T. Hope, in his 'Essay on Architecture,' says: 'The Saturnalia were continued in the Carnival, and the festival with offerings to the goddess Strenia
Strenia
was continued in that of the New Year…'" – page 408

An interesting theory connects the tradition of exchanging gifts to an ancient Roman festivity in honour of Ianus
Ianus
and Strenia
Strenia
(in Italian a Christmas
Christmas
gift used to be called strenna), celebrated at the beginning of the year, when Romans used to give each other presents. In the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John J. Blunt (John Murray, 1823), the author says:

"This Befana
Befana
appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year's gifts, 'Strenae,' from which, indeed, she derived her name.[4] Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey.[7] Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character".[8]

The tradition of Befana
Befana
appears to incorporate other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year. Historian Carlo Ginzburg
Carlo Ginzburg
relates her to Nicevenn. The old lady character should then represent the old year just passed, ready to be burned in order to give place to the new one. In many European countries the tradition still exists of burning a puppet of an old lady at the beginning of the New Year, called Giubiana
Giubiana
in Northern Italy, with clear Celtic origins. Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco, in their book Una Casa Senza Porte (A House without Doors) trace Befana's origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices. The team of anthropologists also wrote about Befana
Befana
as a figure that evolved into a goddess associated with fertility and agriculture. Befana
Befana
also maintains many similarities with Perchta
Perchta
and her Pre-Christian Alpine traditions. The Befana
Befana
today[edit]

Befana
Befana
of Campomarino di Maruggio, Italy

The Befana
Befana
is celebrated throughout all of Italy,[9] and has become a national icon. In the regions of the Marches, Umbria
Umbria
and Latium, her figure is associated with the Papal States, where the Epiphany held the most importance. Urbania
Urbania
is thought to be her official home. Every year there is a big festival held to celebrate the holiday. About 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the festivities. Hundreds of Befanas are present, swinging from the main tower. They juggle, dance and greet all the children.[10] Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of "coal" in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring), as every child has been at least occasionally bad during the year. Three places in Italy are nowadays associated with the Befana tradition:[citation needed]

Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona
in central Rome
Rome
is the site of a popular market each year between Christmas
Christmas
and the Epiphany, where toys, sugar charcoal and other candies are on sale. The feast of the Befana
Befana
in Rome
Rome
was immortalized in four famous sonnets in the Roman dialect by the 19th century Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli. In Ottorino Respighi's 1928 Feste Romane ("Roman Festivals"), the fourth movement, titled La Befana, is an orchestral portrayal of this Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona
festival. Romans believe that at the midnight January 6 the Befana
Befana
shows herself from a window of Piazza Navona, and they always go there to watch her (it's a joke everybody tells while going to the feast to buy candies, toys and sweets). The town of Urbania
Urbania
in the Province of Pesaro e Urbino within the Marches, where the national Befana
Befana
festival is held each year, usually between January 2 and 6. A "house of the Befana" is scheduled to be built and the post office has a mailbox reserved for letters addressed to the Befana, mirroring what happens with Santa Claus
Santa Claus
in Rovaniemi. In Fornovo di Taro, a little town by Parma, the national meeting "Raduno Nazionale delle Befane e dei Befani" is held on 5 and 6 January.

In other parts of the world where a vibrant Italian community exists, traditions involving Befana
Befana
may be observed and shared or celebrated with the wider community. In Toronto, Canada for example, a Befana Choir shows up on Winter Solstice each December to sing in the Kensington Market
Kensington Market
Festival of Lights parade. Women, men, and children dressed in La Befana
Befana
costume and nose sing love songs to serenade the sun to beckon its return. The singing hags gather in the street to give candy to children, to cackle and screech to accordion music, and to sing in every key imaginable as delighted parade participants join in the cacophony. Sometimes, the Befanas dance with parade goers and dust down the willing as parade goers walk by. Poems and songs[11][edit] There are poems about Befana, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy. Here is one of the versions:

La Befana
Befana
vien di notte Con le scarpe tutte rotte Col vestito alla romana Viva, Viva La Befana!

The English translation is:

The Befana
Befana
comes by night With her shoes all tattered and torn She comes dressed in the Roman way Long live the Befana!

Another version is given in a poem by Giovanni Pascoli:[12]

Viene, viene la Befana Vien dai monti a notte fonda Come è stanca! la circonda Neve e gelo e tramontana! Viene, viene la Befana

The English translation is:

Here comes, here comes the Befana She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night Look how tired she is! All wrapped up In snow and frost and the north wind! [13] Here comes, here comes the Befana!

See also[edit]

Epiphany (holiday) Knecht Ruprecht Krampus Perchta St Nicholas
St Nicholas
Day Zwarte Piet

References[edit]

^ Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses (2009) p. 269. ISBN 978-0-06-135024-5 ^ "Viva La Befana". Transparent Language 6 Jan, 2009. 12 Dec, 2009. <http://www.transparent.com/italian/tag/la-befana/>. ^ a b c "Italian Christmas
Christmas
tradition of "La Befana"." Italian-Link.com n.d. 15 Dec, 2009 ^ a b D. Augustine de Civit. Dei, lib. iv. c. 16. ^ "LA VERA STORIA." La Befana
Befana
n.d. 13 Dec, 2009. <http://www.la-befana.it/>. ^ "The Legend of ’La Befana’". John D. Calandra Italian American Institute n.d. 12 Dec, 2009. <http://qcpages.qc.edu/calandra/community/commbefa.html/>. ^ Ovid Fasti i. 185. ^ Vide Rosini, ed. Dempster. lib. i. c.13, de Dea Strenia, p. 120 ^ "The Befana
Befana
Comes by Night…" Alice Bonvincini Italian American Digital Project n.d. 2 Jan, 2011. <http://www.i-italy.org/16375/befana-comes-night>; ^ Giglio, Michael. "Taking Flight with Italy’s Holiday Witch." Spiegel Online 12 Dec, 2008. 15 Dec, 2009.<http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,596060,00.html>. ^ DI FILASTROCCHE.IT retrieved 2010-1-04 ^ [1] retrieved 2011-1-05 ^ Tramontana (English - tramontane) is "a classical name for a northern wind", from tra i monti, meaning "from the mountains"

External links[edit]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to La Befana.

" Christmas
Christmas
in Abruzzo: La Befana". Abruzzo. Archived from the original on 2013-03-13. Retrieved 24 February 2015.  Befana, an academic view The story of the befana and letters and pictures by children

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