“The Befana comes at night, With her shoes all tattered and torn, She comes dressed in the Roman way, Long Live the Befana.”
These lines sound so much better in Italian (see below) and it’s one poem that all children learn by rote and then recall as adults. La Befana is one of the most loved figures associated with Italian Christmas: the celebration is still popular throughout Italy. It’s nice to see photos of Italian women of a certain age getting into the spirit of Befana, dressing up as witches, while family groups attend the many winter feste and sagre dedicated to La Befana on the evening of January 5, 12 days after Christmas day.
For those who don’t know the story, the legend of La Befana is associated with the Epiphany which occurs 12 days after Christmas. Befana was an old woman who was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. She declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and went in search of the three astrologers and the new born Jesus. That night she wasn’t able to find them, so to this day, La Befana goes out searching for the little baby on the night of the Epiphany, on January 5-6. Befana is a corruption of the Italian word of epifania, and is derived from the Greek, επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or manifestation. She is depicted as a kindly old witch wearing ragged clothes and riding a broomstick. She enters the house via the chimney and brings a sack of gifts for the children, sweet things for the good children and a lump of carbon or garlic for the naughty ones. See my earlier posts about Befana, here, here and here.
But there’s still something odd about the Christian aspects of this legend. Why a witch and why is she flying on a broomstick above Italian villages and cities? As it turns out, there are many pagan and folkloric threads to the story, each one providing more clues. Like many Christian stories, this one has been appropriated from ancient times and tacked on to a Christian legend about the birth of Jesus.
‘The origin of the Befana is probably connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the X-VI century BC, and is linked to seasonal cycles, to agriculture, and is related to the harvest of the past year, now ready to be reborn as a the new year’.¹
In the Roman era, the twelfth night after winter solstice symbolised the death and rebirth of nature, and was celebrated. They believed that the twelve nights after solstice represented the twelve months of the Roman calendar: female figures flew over the cultivated fields to promote the fertility of future crops, hence the legend of a “flying” figure. According to some, this female figure was first identified as Diana, the lunar goddess linked to game and hunting as well as to vegetation and the moon. Befana is also linked to minor deities such as Satìa and Abundìa, symbols of satiety and abundance. There may also be an association with an ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Strenia ¹, the goddess of New Year, a time when gifts were exchanged. (the word strenna meaning gifts is derived from this).
Other precursors include Holda and Perchta, nocturnal witches of Nordic mythology, and in the Veneto region, Erodiade. It is customary in these areas to burn an effigy of La Befana. Good, evil, mother, witch, goddess, housewife, grandmother, hag, crone, the modern, often cartoonised character of Befana, has emerged from a rich store of pagan and Italian folklore. In a sense, the Christian element is just one minor thread.
As for La Befana who comes dressed as a witch in the Roman style, historians specialising in Italian witchcraft and folkloric traditions have more to say. A story perhaps for next year’s post on this topic?
There are at least 12 versions of this little Italian poem, but this is the one I learnt many years ago. See opening paragraph above for the English translation.
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!