January 6th is the Epiphany, which is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. If you’ve ever heard of the three wise men visiting Jesus, you already know something about this holiday.
The night before the Epiphany – L’epifania in Italian- is a special one in Italy because it’s when the Befana – a kindly old witch fills socks, left hanging by children, with gifts and sweets. To the good children she leaves candy and gifts to the bad ones she leaves pieces of coal. The morning of the 6th, kids all over Italy wake up to find their home has been visited by the Befana.
But why is an old witch delivering presents? The befana tradition actually has some ancient roots, mixed with celtic traditions and is actually quite historic.. However, the story most frequently told today is that when the three wise men were searching for Jesus, they asked an old lady for directions. She was very busy cleaning and while she was kind to them, she declined their offer to accompany them to meet Jesus. Later, she realized her mistake and took to the skies to attempt to locate the three wise men. They were already gone though and she never got to see baby Christ. So, to this day, she flies the skies rewarding good girls and boys, who have the spirit of Jesus inside them. There are many other versions of this story as well, including one where her own baby had died and she brings gifts to Jesus, treating him as if he was her own, and he rewards her with all the children of Italy – making her mother to all living on eternally as the befana.
In addition to the candy and stories, the best part of the befana for me, anyways, is the little song that children sing. It goes like this:
La befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte, col vestito alla romana, viva viva la befana!
Buona befana a tutti!