Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas in Italy, the Befane witch

Three Befane with their brooms.

La Befana is a character in Italian folklore who delivers presents to children throughout Italy, in a similar way to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus. The character may have originated in Rome, then spread as a tradition to the rest of Italy.

A popular belief is that her name derives from the festival of Epiphany, but there is evidence to suggest that Befana is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strina. 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 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.[1] Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey.[2] Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character".[3]

Befana means “Epifania”-“Epiphany” which is a Latin word with Greek origins. It can mean the “festival of” or “manifestation”.[4]In the Catholic Church it means the Re Magi also known as “the wise kings” of baby Jesus.[5]

In popular folklore Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the 6th of January to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. 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.

She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in sootbecause 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.


Christian legend has it that La Befana was approached by the magi (the biblical three kings) a few days before Christ's birth. They asked for directions to where the baby Jesus was, 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. They 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 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 is searching for the baby Jesus. She leaves all the good children toys and candy, while the bad children get coal or bags of ashes.

Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La 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 being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

Also, popular tradition avers that if one sees La 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 while parents are distributing candy (or coal) and sweeping the floor on Epiphany Eve.

Also, another commonly heard Christian legend of la Befana starts at the time of the birth of baby Jesus.[6] 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 turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. 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 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 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 [7]


Many people believe that the name 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 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 and Strenia (in Italian a Christmas gift is called strenna), celebrated at the beginning of the year, when Romans were used to giving each other presents.

The tradition of La Befana appears to incorporate other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year. HistorianCarlo 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 in Northern Italy, with clear Celtic origins. Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco, in their book Una Casa Senza Porte (House without a Door) trace Befana's origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices. The team of anthropologists also write about Befana as a figure that evolved into a goddess associated with fertility and agriculture.

[edit]La Befana today

Befana of Campomarino di Maruggio(Italy)

The La Befana is celebrated throughout all of Italy; she has become a national icon. Le Marche, Umbria and Lazio are three places that are associated with the Papal States, where the Epiphany held the most importance. Urbania is thought to be her official home. Every year there is a big festival held to celebrate the holiday. About 30,000-50,000 people attend the festivities. Hundreds of Befana’s are present, swinging from the main tower. They juggle, dance and greet all the children.[8] 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.

Two places in Italy are nowadays associated with the Befana tradition:

In other parts of the world where a vibrant Italian community exists, traditions involving La 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 theKensington Market Festival of Lights parade. Women, men, and children dressed in La 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.

[edit]Poems & Songs

There are poems about La Befana, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy. Here is one of the versions:

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

The English translation is:

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

Another version told by people in the Province of Trento (northern Lake Garda):

Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
neve e gelo la circondan..
neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana

The English translation is:

Here comes, here come the Befana
she comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
snow and frost (ice) surrounds her
snow and frost and the West wind
here comes, here comes the Befana!

Tramontana: English - Tramontane: "a classical name for a northern wind." OR from "tra i monti" = "from the mountains" = cold wind, typically from the north.

Another song, this one by Italian pop singer and entertainer Gianni Morandi:

Trullalà Trullalà Trullalà.
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte,
con la calza appesa al collo,
col carbone, col ferro e l’ottone.
Sulla scopa per volare.
Lei viene dal mare.
Lei viene dal mare.

E la neve scenderà
sui deserti del Maragià,
dall’Alaska al Canadà.
E partire lei dovrà
e cantando partirà
da ciociara si vestirà,
con il sacco arriverà,
la bufera vincerà.
E cantando trullalà,
la Befana arriverà.
Trulalla’ Trullalà Trullalà.

Un bambino, grande come un topolino,
si è infilato nel camino,
per guardarla da vicino.
Quando arriva la Befana
senza denti
salta, balla, beve il vino.
Poi di nascosto s’allontana
con la notte appiccicata alla sottana.

E un vento caldo soffierà
sui deserti del Maragià,
dall’Alaska al Canadà.
Solo una stella brillerà
e seguirla lei dovrà,
per volare verso il nord
e la strada è lunga
ma la bufera vincerà.
E cantando Trullalà,
la Befana se ne va.
E cantando Trullalà
Truallalero Trullalà
Trullalà Trullalà Trullalà