Have you met the Befana?
In Italy, January means epiphany and that means the Befana! (be’fa:na) which usually marks the end of the Christmas season. The Befana is a character from local folklore who makes her appearance during the feast of Epiphany on January 6th. In fact the name Befana comes from the word epifania, the Italian name for the religious festival of the Epiphany, a Greek word which means revelation, manifestation.
In Italy she became an iconic character loved by children. She brings candy to children that have been good and coal to those misbehaved. Until recently, she was much more popular in Italy than Santa Claus – after all according to tradition it was she who came bearing gifts for children.
According to legend, shortly before the birth of Jesus, the three kings were en route to see Baby Jesus. Along the way they stopped for directions, the Befana, said she did not know the way and instead offered them shelter for the night. They considered her the best housekeeper in the village and asked her to join them. She declined the invitation, only to later change her mind. She set off to follow the three wise men to find baby Jesus but was unable to. Another version states that she was so busy housekeeping, she could not even help the three kings but later decided to follow them. And so, she goes around giving presents to children on the night of January 5thhoping that one of them would be the Christ child.
She is an old lady with a hump, a hooked nose and a pointed chin who rides a broomstick. She wears black shawl and old apron with many pockets covered in soot because she enters through the chimney to leave presents for children. She carries a bag filled with candies and gifts.
Here in Italy, children hang their socks as preparation for the arrival of the Befana instead of the arrival of Babbo Natale (Santa Claus). During the Befana, children would know if in the past year they were well-behaved by receiving candies.
Do you want to dress up like a Befana? It’s simple! Here are the things you will need:
- old broken shoes (le scarpe tutte rotte)
- burlap sack
- straw broom (la scopa)
- coal (il carbone)
Make sure to hang your stocking before the Befana arrives.
Easy Milano is the online publication for the international community of Milan. We offer practical tips, key information and essential insights about living and working in Italy. Easy Milano has been assisting English speaking expats in Milan since 1999.
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