The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all broken
With a dress in Roman style
Up, up with the Befana!
She brings ashes and coal
To bad nasty children
To the nice good child
She brings candies and many gifts!
In Italy, Epiphany is the time of "La Befana," the legendary Good Witch of Christmas, who gives gifts to children. In European folklore the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany were the period in the year when the presence of witches was most felt. New Year's celebrations in Italian folklore included burning a straw effigy of an old woman, symbolic of the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new. Furthermore, throughout Europe, Twelfth Night was considered the most magical night of the year, as Shakespeare knew quite well ("A witchcraft drew me hither." - Antonio - Twelfth Night). And Befana with her broken shoes actually flies on a broom, another important magic symbol in a number of European cultures.
La Befana is seen as a “good witch”. She visits all of the children on the eve of January 6th, arriving on her broomstick. She is a smiling Crone who wears a black shawl covered in soot because she enters the children’s homes through the chimney. She carries a bag over her shoulder filled with candy, dried fruit, small gifts, and coal. She will fill children’s socks with the treats if they have been good, or with lumps of coal if they have been bad. Because she is a wise and tidy housekeeper, she will sweep the floor with her broom before she leaves. The children’s parents will leave La Befana an offering of thanks. This may be a glass of wine or a plate of food. Some Roman children leave her a gift of soft ricotta cheese, believing she has hardly any teeth.
The tradition of the old woman bearing gifts can be traced to the 13th century where celebrations for her arrival included dances, bonfires and songs. These festivities probably stem from the ancient tradition of gift-giving among Christians on Jan. 6 in commemoration of the Magi. The Befana was "officially" given her name during the Renaissance, through the rhymes of Tuscan poet Agnolo Firenzuola, where appeared historically for the first time in writing in a poem in 1549. She is portrayed like an old ugly woman, dressed in dark rags who during the night between 5th and 6th January flies over the houses riding her broom and entering through the chimneys (or a keyhole, if no fireplace exists).
The "coal" that she would leave to the nasty children was actually also a symbol of fertility connected to the sacred bonfires and the "ceppo".
Many people believe that the name Befana is derived from the Italians' mispronunciation of the Greek word epifania or epiphaneia. Others point to the name being a derivative of Bastrina, the gifts associated with the goddess Strina. In the book Domestic Life in Palestine, by Mary E. Rogers (Poe & Hitchcock, 1865) the author notes:
"But an 'Essay on the Fine Arts,' by E. L. Tarbuck, led me to believe that this custom is a relic of pagan worship, and that the word "Bastrina" refers to the offerings which used to be made to the goddess Strenia. We could hardly expect that the pagans who embraced Christianity could altogether abandon their former creeds and customs. Macaulay says, "Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity; the rites of the Pantheon passed into her 'worship, and the subtilties of the Academy into her creed.' Many pagan customs were adopted by the new Church. T. Hope, in his 'Essay on Architecture,' says: 'The Saturnalia were continued in the Carnival, and the festival with offerings to the goddess Strenia was continued in that of the New Year…'" – page 408
An interesting theory connects the tradition of exchanging gifts to an ancient Roman festivity in honour of Ianus and Strenia (in Italian a Christmas gift is called strenna), celebrated at the beginning of the year, when Romans used to give each other presents.
In the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John J. Blunt (John Murray, 1823), the author says:
"This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year's gifts, 'Strenae,' from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character".
Also, popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn't wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds while parents are distributing candy (or coal) and sweeping the floor on Epiphany Eve.
The tradition of Befana appears to incorporate other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year. Historian Carlo Ginzburg relates her to Nicevenn. The old lady character should then represent the old year just passed, ready to be burned in order to give place to the new one. In many European countries the tradition still exists of burning a puppet of an old lady at the beginning of the New Year, called Giubiana in Northern Italy, with clear Celtic origins. Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco, in their book Una Casa Senza Porte (House without a Door) trace Befana's origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices. The team of anthropologists also write about Befana as a figure that evolved into a goddess associated with fertility and agriculture.
In many cultures the relations between grown-ups and children is based on the observance of rules achieved through the fear of punishments and expectations of reward. To this family of figures belong the ogre and witch, transformed into the more positive figures of Santa Claus and the Befana. As a testimonial of this connection, here is an old Italian lullaby that goes:
who will I give this child to
if I give it to the Befana
she will keep him one whole week
if I give it to the Bogey Man
he will keep him one whole year
but if the child goes to sleep
then his mother will him keep"
Parents can use the wise and generous crone La Befana to give more personal, meaningful gifts. On the night of January 5th, let your children hang their socks from the mantle of your fireplace, or anywhere you might hang your stockings. Make goodies together for La Befana, like homemade cookies. After your children have fallen asleep, fill their socks with healthy snacks like fresh fruit and raisins and small, inexpensive gifts, like those from a dollar store.
Make some coal candy, either together, or on your own, if you have that kind of fun family and can leave it in the stockings without anyone getting upset.
There are several recipes out there, and I will admit I have not yet tried to make this. All I lack is some of the black paste food coloring.
2 c. sugar
3/4 c. light corn syrup
1/2 c. water
1 t. mint extract
1/2 t. black paste food coloring
Line 8-inch square baking pan with foil, extending edges over sides of pan. Lightly grease foil with butter; set aside. Measure sugar, corn syrup and water into heavy 2-quart saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until sugar is dissolved and mixture comes to a boil, being careful not to splash sugar mixture on side of pan. Carefully clip candy thermometer to side of pan (do not let bulb touch bottom of pan).
Cook about 15 minutes until thermometer registers 290°F, without stirring. Immediately remove from heat. Stir in extract and food coloring. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Cool completely.
Lift candy out of pan using foil; remove foil. Place candy between 2 layers of heavy-duty foil. Pound with mallet to break candy into 1- to 2-inch pieces.
Many of the recipes call for anise extract instead of mint; one even suggested orange flavoring. I think I'll stick with mint.
Just be sure to make this fun. Let La Befana’s more gentle and loving approach show us how the world could use a little bit of her magic.