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La Befana

La Befana

As a typical Italian rhyme says,

La Befana vien di notte

Con le scarpe tutte rotte

Col vestito alla romana

Viva, Viva La Befana!

La Befana, a typical Italian character of the Italian Folklore, is an old lady who arrives on her broomstick during the night of January the 5th and fills the children’s’ stockings with toys and sweets for the good children, and coal for the bad ones.

The old lady is usually portrayed riding a broomstick through the air and wearing a black shawl. She is also usually covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. Her main characteristic is to be an ugly scary figure with a kind heart.

Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a blow 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 on Epiphany Eve.

Where does this bitter sweet character and the Epiphany festivity, now associated with la Bafana, originate from?

The word Epiphany derives from a Latin word with Greek origins and it means manifestation the of God.

Many pagan traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations when Christianity spread amongst the population.

The origins of La Befana’s festivity can be traced back to the Roman's pagan festivity of “Saturnalia”, a one or two week festival starting just before the winter solstice.

At the end of Saturnalia, the Romans used to go to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their augers read by an old woman (it was common to wish someone “good augers”, from which derives the practice of saying “auguri”). Apparently La Befana substituted in the people’s imagination the old woman who read the augers.

There are also some legends about the Befana’s history.

According to one of them, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger they stopped at the house of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy with her household. Then a shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died. She lost her way and never found the manger.

According to another legend La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and she was maddened with grief. When she heard of the birth of Jesus, she set out to see him, thinking that he was her son. When she eventually met Jesus he was delighted with her presents and gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

One of the biggest celebrations for La Befana in Italy is in the town of Urbania, in Le Marche region, where a 4-day festival for La Befana it’s held from January 2-6. Children can meet La Befana in La Casa della Befana. Urbania is thought to be the official home of the befana. Every year there is a big festival held to celebrate the holiday. About 30,000-50,000 people attend the festivities.

In Venice the Befane races, “Regatta delle Bafane”, are held on January 6. Men dressed as La Befana race in boats on the Grand Canal.

Piazza Navona in central Rome is the site of a popular market each year between Christmas and the Epiphany, where toys, sugar charcoal and other candies are on sale.

A procession of hundreds of people in medieval costumes walk along the wide avenue leading up to the Vatican, carrying symbolic gifts for the Pope. The Pope says a morning mass in St Peter's Basilica to commemorate the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts for Jesus.

On January the 6th Milan has an Epiphany Parade of the Three Kings from the Duomo to the church of Sant'Eustorgio.

The Befana appears also in street processions as a masked figure with her consort Befano. Guiding a band of followers who receive offers from the families, who in exchange receive the gift of prosperity from Befana's blessings. Music fills the streets and people place Befana dolls in their windows, welcoming her to their house. At the end of the Befana celebration, the Befana dolls are burned. This is done to burn the bad things of the old year and to wish the best things to come for the new year.

Giulia Lombardo

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