La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva la Befana!
The English translation:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live the Befana!
Every Italian child grows up learning and celebrating the holiday of La Befana (and the Epiphany) on the 6th of January. While I grew up, Christmas on the 25th of December was less observed than La Befana, as the 6th of January was considered the “true Christmas,” but the older I became, the more I and the countries of Southern Europe, primarily Italy, started celebrating both. Also, Babbo Natale (Father Christmas/Santa Clause) had not been not recognised in Italy until around World War II, while La Befana has been acknowledged throughout Europe since the 13th Century (some countries have other names for her). La Befana/The Epiphany is a time of moderate gift-giving and celebration of life, new beginnings, love, the little things, and family. (And sometimes candy… 😋)
For those who do not know the tale:
The Befana, an elderly woman who essentially represents the people and/or the lower classes, was at her home, sweeping/cleaning on the eve of the 12th night of Christmas (5th Jan), when she was approached by the three Magi (or Three Kings), who were following the Star of Bethlehem shining bright above for the birth of a new King. After she tended to the Magi, they asked the elderly woman to join them in their quest to meet the new King, Jesus Christ. She kindly refused them, as she had too much housework to do, but later changed her mind, gathered some things, including a bundle of kindling for a fire, and went out to try to catch up to the three Magi to find and meet Christ.
After a long and arduous journey, La Befana continued to search, but could never find either of them. She now flies out on her broom every Epiphany Eve to locate the son of God, leaving gifts of fruit and candy in the stockings/shoes of good children (as Christ may be found in all children) and coal, sticks (only in few regions), garlic, or onions in those of bad children.
Not unlike for Santa Clause, a children’s family normally set up treats for the Befana’s arrival to their home, but rather than providing milk and cookies near the fireplace, a small glass of wine and regional/local morsels of food are left for her instead.
[Part of the end of this story, as I heard it long ago: La Befana arrives to the barn in Bethlehem, only to find that the three Magi (or Three Kings) had already arrived to Christ, there before her, providing Mother Mary and him with frankincense, gold, and myrrh. La Befana, when time to approach and provide her bundle of sticks says: I apologise that I come bringing no fine gifts, such as the ones before, as I am a poor old woman from the country, but I bring you wood for your fire, to keep your newborn safe and warm.
Mother Mary graciously accepts the old woman’s sweet gift, treating her with the utmost respect, and tells the La Befana: No need to apologise for such a thoughtful and useful gift. You’ve traveled so far and wide to come here, please sit with us next to the fire we will build with your firewood and rest.]
La Befana shows us that the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth it is not a time for lavish gift giving, like it is for Christmas, but rather a time of respect, celebration of life/new beginnings, and appreciation for the little things.
Note: La Befana may also sometimes be depicted as a good witch carrying/riding a broom. This is due to the correlation of her sweeping at her home, being poor, and her method of transportation to the children of the world. However, La Befana is depicted in a much more colourful manner than a witch would; including having a kerchief instead of a pointed hat on her head.