L’Epifania e la Befana

Sure, Christmas and New Year’s are in the past, but you didn’t think that the holiday season was over, did you? We told you a little bit about the Feast of Epiphany (L’Epifania) and la Befana in our , but the holiday season and Befana are so popular in Italy that we thought we’d tell you a little more about the tradition of Befana and how she came to be.

Just in case you forgot, l’Epifania is celebrated on January 6th and commemorates the Wise Men’s visit and giving of gifts to the Baby Jesus. Although it is becoming more popular to exchange gifts on Christmas, the main gift-giving day is January 6th, and some say more people celebrate this holiday than Christmas!

So who is la Befana? There are many different stories and descriptions of her, but in general, she is described as an old witch who rides a broomstick (una scopa) the night before January 6th, delivering gifts into the stockings of all the good children and coal into the stockings of all the bad ones. She flies through keyholes or goes down chimneys to get into the houses to deliver presents.

One version of the story of Befana says that one night, the Wise Men arrived at Befana’s home to rest before they continued on to the manger to visit the Baby Jesus. They asked Befana if she wanted to go with them, but she said no because she was so busy (many say with cleaning). Later on, a shepherd stopped by her home and asked the same question, but she again declined the offer. That night, she saw a light up in the sky and decided to try to find the Wise Men and the shepherd, bringing presents along with her. Befana never found the Wise Men or the shepherd, which is why she now flies around on her broomstick each year on the night before the Epiphany, giving gifts and hoping she’ll find the Baby Jesus.

Befana has been a part of Italian culture for quite some time now, and although there are different theories regarding her origin, the first appearance of the actual name “Befana” came up in a poem by Agnolo Firenzuolo in 1549 describing the witch and her travels. Her name is a version of the word “Epiphany.”

Besides exchanging gifts, people celebrate the Epiphany and Befana by reenacting her story, attending festivals and parades, and watching living nativity scenes (presepi viventi), in which people act out different scenes of the Nativity.

So if you want to extend the holiday season a little more, go ahead and read stories about la Befana and celebrate l’Epifania! And tell us, do you know any other versions of the tale of la Befana?

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