In Western Christianity, the Epifania [Epiphany], which falls on January 6, celebrates the visit of the magi to the Christ Child and the physical manifestation of Jesus Christ himself to the Gentiles. In Italy the festivity is sometimes called, although imprecisely, the Befana—the name being a linguistic corruption of the word Epifania. According to the tradition, the Befana is a broomstick-riding old woman who brings treats to kids. The Epifania marks the end of the holiday season and the last day of school vacation, and it comes with many customs and traditions. So, let’s hop on our broomsticks and discover all the Befana’s secrets!
L’Epifania tutte le feste porta via
The more prosaic meaning of the Epifania is the end of the one-month-long holiday season. In Italy the holiday season starts with the Immacolata Concezione (December 8), continues with la vigilia di Natale (December 24), Natale, S. Stefano (December 26), and Capodanno (January 1), and finishes with the Epifania. L’Epifania tutte le feste porta via (Epiphany brings away all the holidays), as they say. It’s the most bittersweet day for kids: they get treats, but school resumes the next day. As for treats: according to the tradition, kids who behaved well get candies and chocolate; kids who misbehaved get coal. It turns out that the coal is made of sugar, however, so it’s still good, although not the best indulgence for still-very-soft teeth. Anyhow, kids hang their stockings the night before, and the nice, witch-like lady brings them treats overnight.
Origins and (local) traditions
The Befana (meaning the old-lady package of customs) was originally celebrated in a few Italian regions only, but it’s now a nationwide tradition. In some regions, treats are actually brought by i Re Magi, including Sardinia, for instance, where many traditions from the Spanish domination still persist. Pretty much everywhere, hanging stocking is the most popular way to welcome the Befana. In Roma, people traditionally go to Piazza Navona, where the most popular Christmas market takes place. Enjoying the last remnants of festive vibes surrounded by Bernini’s and Borromini’s fountains and statues, after all, fa felici grandi e piccini(makes grown-ups and kids equally happy).
Other local traditions include the Regata in Venice, a rowing regatta race in which athletes, dressed as old witches, row their way through the Venetian canals and whose finish line consists of a huge sock hanging down from ponte di Rialto; the Raduno Nazionale delle Befane e dei Befani—a gathering of people dressed as Befana/o, with a series of awards, the most prestigious being Miss Befana—which takes place close to Parma. Napoli hosts a parade along the seafront and in piazza Plebiscito—one the most beautiful and central locations in the city—a special Befana (a firefighter disguised as such) comes down from the sky to give away treats.
And—of course!—there’s food involved: the fugassa d’la Befan, a focaccia filled with raisins and candied fruits; the cavallucci and befanini, sugar- or sprinkles-coated cookies made in Tuscany; the pastiera campana(from Campania), which is also an Easter tradition—after all, who are we to say no to a pastiera at any given day?; the pepatelli, cookies made with honey, almonds, orange peels, and a pinch of pepper, typical of Southern Italy.
La Befana vien di notte…
From all the above, you can easily tell why the Befana is a very beloved tradition. If coming to Italy to celebrate it is not an option, you can watch a movie! A good choice might be La Befana vien di note, for instance, by Paola Cortellesi, a 2018 movie in which an elementary teacher is, in fact, the real Befana. La Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte … is also the first line of a famous nursery rhyme every Italian kid is familiar with. Search for it on the Internet, and maybe try to sing it—any practice opportunity is good practice!
By Claudia Quesito