Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Well, it has been some time since I have done a post – other things keep intruding. But I received an email from my friend Claudia sometime before Christmas mentioning the opportunities to stuff oneself over the holidays and she mentioned Befana. Who ever heard of Befana outside of Italy?

Certainly it is new to me. Of course for me the word “epiphany” means that I suddenly understand something that has been confusing me for some time. However Epiphany is recognized, at least by Catholics I presume, as the day that the wise men, late as they often are, finally stumbled belatedly into Bethlehem to present their gifts to the new savior of the world. Whether there is any celebration of this day in the U.S. by any religion is unclear. I did find from Wikipedia that in some town in Colorado it is the date of the Great Fruitcake Toss but other than that I’m not clear about anything special happening on that day. But as usual I digress.

A very interesting part of the Italian tradition is that the wise men in all of their wisdom were, well, a bit lost and stopped by some little town to inquire about directions. This is where Befana entered the scene. There are variations on this legend of course but basically the old woman Befana welcomed the wise men, and put them up for the night but was clueless about the whereabouts of the baby Jesus. The next day the Magi set off and offered to take Befana with them. She was more concerned with doing her house cleaning or something and decided not to go along. Later she decided that maybe she should have gone so she set off to try to follow the trail of the wise men but never could find them. Now we go into a strange combination of Halloween and our own Christmas traditions. Befana never did find the wise guys or the baby who came to save the world and she has regretted it ever since. As a result she flies around on her broom on the Eve of Epiphany delivering presents to good children and coal or something similar to the bad ones. Not only that but she comes down the chimney and the family leaves a snack out for Befana – this being Italy it includes wine – which may explain this joke….


Apparently she hope to find the Christ child that she missed. So the Eve of Epiphany was traditionally the time for gift giving in Italy although that has steadily shifted to Christmas. Still the figure of the old Befana on her broom delivering gifts is quite a mental image.

Of course almost all of the figures in the Christmas season as well as traditions are adopted from earlier pre-christian days but that doesn’t make any of it less fascinating.

So carry on the tradition in your house. Next year tell the kiddies that Befana will be riding around on her broom the night of January 5th and will bring some treats or coal – that should confuse them.


One Response to “Befana”

  1. Peter H. Says:

    Now I know!

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