Befana - An Italian Christmas Tradition

In Italian folklore, La Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout the country on Epiphany Eve - the night between 5 and 6 January.  The Epiphany is the Christian feast day that commemorates the visitation of the biblical Magi to the baby Jesus.
Phoho Credit: Bas_Ernst
Phoho Credit: Bas_Ernst
Modern Italian Christian legend has it that the Magi invited Befana to join them on their journey to find the new-born Jesus, but she declined, being too busy with her housework and baking.  Later, poor Befana had a change of heart.  She quickly packed a sack with food and gifts for the baby, took her broom to help the new mother clean her house, and set out to catch up with the Magi.  She searched and searched all through the night, but couldn't find them, and to this day she is still searching alone for the little baby.  On Epiphany Eve she goes to every house where there is a child and leaves a gift, just in case... Befana wears a full dark skirt, apron with patch-pockets, shawl, crooked hat and worn out slippers.  She is a smiling and good-hearted, if ugly, old lady, trying to make amends for what must be the mother of all errors of judgment.  She flies over the rooftops on her broom, descending into the houses through the chimneys to fill the stockings that the children have left hanging out for her.  The children also leave a small plate of food and a glass of wine by the chimney.  The next morning, together with the gifts in their stockings, they find the snack is gone and there is a mysterious sooty hand print on the plate... Befana's origins are lost in time and history – descended from prechristian traditions and entwined in popular culture and folklore.  One common belief is that her name derives from a mispronunciation of the Italian word 'Epifania', but there is also evidence to suggest that Befana is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strenia, who presided over the Roman new year celebrations and gift-giving - 'strenna' is a word still used in Italian for gifts given around the Christmas and New Year period.  What is certain is that Befana predates Christianity, and has probably been integrated into the Christian calendar in the way that many pagan customs were adopted by the new Church.  Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco, in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (House Without Doors) actually trace Befana's origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices.  On a lighter note, many Italian children simply believe that Befana is Santa Claus' wife and lives at the South Pole.  Santa Claus cannot always satisfy every child's requests, so Befana tries to make amends...
Epiphany Stocking
Epiphany Stocking
Article by Zara Nelson for The Tuscan Magazine