Whisking Away Winter Blues: The Story of La Befana
Dive into the enchanting world of Befana, Italy’s timeless gift-giver, as we explore the history of this quirky tradition. From ancient tales to modern delights, join me in rediscovering the magic, myths, and laughter surrounding the Befana’s myth. Get ready to embark on a journey filled with sweets, gifts, and the heart-warming legacy of much loved Italian celebration.
“La Befana vien di notte, con le scarpe tutte rotte, con le toppe alla sottana, viva viva la Befana!”
(The Befana comes by night, with shoes all tattered and patches on her skirt, long live the Befana! – Traditional Italian nursery rhyme)
A Grandmother Like No Other
Step into the enchanting world of La Befana, the beloved Italian grandmother who graces the night of Epiphany with her magical presence. Forget the hustle and bustle of modern life; and let’s also journey to the heart of Urbania, a quaint town in the Marche region, where La Befana’s tale is once again embraced.
In certain tales, she’s portrayed as Santa Claus’s wife, or in alternative versions, a close friend or relative of his. Conversely, conflicting stories emerge where the man in red insists that this elderly lady isn’t real. Another narrative suggests the Befana has a husband (the Befanotto), an elderly and frightfully unattractive companion who unnerves children with his arrival alongside his aged and worn-out wife.
Stockings Filled with Surprises: Italy’s Christmas Folklore
It’s the eve of Epiphany, January 5th, and the Befana is bustling about in her slightly worn-out attire, ready to spread joy and warmth. She’s not your typical grandma; she soars through the night sky on a broomstick, delivering gifts to children across Italy, a festive tradition akin to Santa Claus or the Three Wise Men.
In the realm of Christmas folklore, the Befana is the kindly visitor who fills stockings with an array of delights – sweets, candies, dried fruits, and toys for the well-behaved little ones. However, beware mischievous tots, for your stockings might bear coal or garlic if you’ve been naughty. In some corners of Italy, a stick replaces coal, especially in the pockets of the less fortunate.
Known for her homemaking skills, La Befana, they say, sweeps the floor before departing. It’s not just about tidying up; it’s a symbolic gesture, sweeping away the troubles of the past year, making room for a fresh start.
Now, the hospitality doesn’t stop with the children. Families across Italy leave a small glass of wine and a plate of regional or local bites for the Befana. After all, even magical grandmas need a little snack!
Imagine her flying on her broomstick, donned in a black shawl, covered in soot from chimney entries – a whimsical sight that sparks joy in every child’s heart. Her smile is as warm as the gifts she carries in her bag, sack, or basket – a true embodiment of festive cheer.
From Pagan Rites to Catholic Symbolism
Let’s delve into the roots of the Befana’s story. It’s not just a tale; it’s a tapestry woven with threads of ancient pagan rites dating back to the 10th-6th century B.C. These rituals, linked to seasonal cycles and agriculture, found their way into Roman traditions, intertwining with celebrations like Sol Invictus and the twelfth night after the winter solstice.
The Church’s disapproval of pagan practices led to the melding of these ancient beliefs into the fabric of Catholicism. La Befana emerged as a symbol of dualism between good and evil, a guardian of tradition celebrating the passage from old to new.
Fast forward to the 20th century, where even the fascist regime introduced Fascist Befana, distributing gifts to children from less affluent backgrounds. Post-Mussolini, the tradition persisted in the Italian Social Republic.
In recent times, La Befana’s spirit lives on in festivals and representations across Italy. Picture characters descending from town bell towers or wise elderly women in festive attire, sharing the joy of the season with children.
So, as the winter solstice marks the transition from old to new, and Epiphany bids farewell to the Christmas liturgical season, La Befana’s saying echoes in the air – “Epiphany, all holidays take away.”
Urbania’s Magical Transformation: Befana’s Annual Wonderland
If Santa calls the North Pole home; well, our beloved witch has found her cosy spot in the heart of the Marche, surrounded by hills and oozing with history. Every year, from January 4th to 6th, the town of Urbania magically transforms into a wonderland, bursting with shows and festivities dedicated to the Epiphany.
Urbania transforms into a bona fide Befana Village from January 4th to 6th, with 4,000 stockings dangling all around. Soap bubbles, jugglers, and street theatre that’ll leave you in awe, featuring stilt walkers, towering unicycles, clowns, and ethereal white ladies.
There’s a parade of countless Befanas dancing through the historic centre, and two absolute showstoppers—one gracefully descends from the bell tower with a jaw-dropping 36-meter leap, while the other takes flight from the town hall’s tower amid music and dazzling lights.
On the 5th the Befana herself personally greets kids, wherever they may be—homes, campers, hotels, or farmhouses—armed with gifts and joy.
And don’t forget the Casa della Befana, nestled in the Civic Palace and designed by the brilliant film and television set designer Egidio Spugnini. It’s a year-round haven, but during these celebration days, it truly comes alive. Here, the good witch shares the secrets of making sweet coal, weaving looms, and spins captivating tales of the region. Oh, and the Befana Post Office? It’s ready and waiting in the central square, eager to receive letters from little ones seeking gifts and sweets. Truly an experience not to miss!