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An Italian Tradition: Celebrating Epiphany and La Befana

Updated on December 5, 2011
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For most children, Christmas is pretty much over after unwrapping their gifts on Christmas Day. Growing up in an Italian family, I had another special day to look forward to. The twelfth day after Christmas, known as Epiphany. According to biblical legend, this is the day The Three Wise Men arrived at the manger where baby Jesus was born and gave baby Jesus special offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

This is also the day of La Befana. La Befana is a magical woman, sometimes referred to as a good witch. She is similar to Babbo Natale (Santa Claus). La Befana flies around the world on the eve of Epiphany leaving caramella (candy) and toys to all the good little girls and boys.

Although my parents overlooked this Italian tradition, my grandmother kept it alive in our family. Every January 6th (Epiphany), she'd arrive at our house with knitted socks she made for all of us. They were filled with candy and money. She would tell us they were from La Befana.

The Legend

La Befana was a woman who lived during the time of Jesus Christ. She was a very old woman who loved to clean. One day The Three Wise Men arrived at her doorstep. She invited them in and fed them. As they were leaving they asked the old woman if she would accompany them on their journey to see baby Jesus. La Befana refused. She had too much cleaning to do.

After The Three Wise Men left, she had a change of heart. She went after them in hopes to see the new king that was born in Bethlehem. She got lost and never found him. To this day, she has never given up the search for baby Jesus. Every year on the eve of the Epiphany, she travels on her broom in search of Jesus Christ, dropping off gifts to children along the way.

Some Italian children believe that La Befana is the wife of Santa Claus. She lives in the South Pole while Santa works with the elves in the North Pole. She is an elderly woman who has a crooked nose. Her clothes are patched and her shoes are worn out. Some believe her hair is white, others imagine her hair black. She is also covered in soot because she enters the houses through the chimney.

Italian children hang their stockings up and leave out food and wine for La Befana. She comes in though the chinmey. Good little children get candy and toys. Bad children get lumps of coal, onions, soot or garlic. Before leaving she uses her broom to sweep up and clean the home.


Origins of La Befana

It is widely believed that La Befana's name is originated from the mispronounced Italian word for Epiphany. The tradition of La Befana in Italy is ancient and much older than that of Santa Claus, who was only introduced to Italian children during the World War II era. On the day of the Epiphany, ceremonies, festivals and parades are held for La Befana.

There is new evidence that La Befana and her legend evolved from the Roman goddess, Strina. The Goddess Strina is an elderly goddess, similar to La Befana. The two legends have many similarities.

When Christianity became mainstream in Rome, many pagan traditions were upheld. The winter and spring solstice became Christmas and Easter. Jesus Christ could turn water to wine, just like the Roman god Dionysys. It would only make sense that the beloved Goddess Strina would become La Befana.

Epiphany Celebrations Around Italy

Epiphany is a national holiday in Italy. Celebrations are held around the country. At the Vatican, people come dressed in medieval attire carrying symbolic gifts to the pope in honor of the Three Wise Men.

In Venice, La Befane Races (Regatta della Befana) are held. Men dress up like La Befana and race in boats in the Grand Canal.

Milan is famous for their parade of The Three Kings.

The biggest celebration of all is in Urbania. Urbania holds a four day festival each year from January 2nd through January 6th. Children can meet La Befana at La Case Della Befana.


Poems About La Befana

La Befana vien di notte

Con le scarpe tutte rotte

Col vestito alla romana

Viva, Viva La Befana!

English translation:

The Befana comes by night

With her shoes all tattered and torn

She comes dressed in the Roman way

Long life to the Befana!

Viene, viene la Befana

Vien dai monti a notte fonda

Come รจ stanca! la circonda

Neve e gelo e tramontana!

Viene, viene la Befana

English translation:

Here comes, here comes the Befana

She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night

Look how tired she is! All wrapped up

In snow and frost and the north wind!

Here comes, here comes the Befana!

Comments

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    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 

      8 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      So interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    • amymarie_5 profile imageAUTHOR

      amymarie_5 

      5 years ago from Chicago IL

      Thanks Glass Jewelry! I'm so glad you enjoyed this article. I loved when my grandmother would bring us treats from La Befana!

      Ciao!

    • Glass-Jewelry profile image

      Marco Piazzalunga 

      5 years ago from Presezzo, Italy

      I am Italian and my grandmother had 10 grandchildren and every year she prepared 10 stockings packed with sweet bodes well for all of us.

      She had a fireplace where she placed a rope on which to hang the ten stockings.

      There were really exciting moments for us children!

    • profile image

      Italian-Traditions.Com 

      6 years ago

      Nice information and details about a tradition which is very much established in Italy and from before the advent of Christianity.

      Apparently, it is from the term "Epiphany" itself (or rather from the mis-reading of the original greek form) that the term "Befana" derives (distorted into "Bifanìa" or similar).

      In Rome, in Piazza Navona, since years now there is a figuration of the "Befana" coming out of a window on her broomstick and a day especially dedicated to the children: it is a great event, a very anticipated moment and surely a very choreographic one, with all the stands around the square, the colorful people and costumes and, above all, the "Befana" herself (in costume of course...) bringing sweets to the younger ones.

      The italian saying is "L'Epifanìa tutte le feste porta via", meaning that it marks the end of the Christmas time and the celebrations linked to it.

    • amymarie_5 profile imageAUTHOR

      amymarie_5 

      6 years ago from Chicago IL

      Thank you Kim! So glad that you enjoyed this hub!

    • Kim Cantrell profile image

      Kim Cantrell 

      6 years ago from Deep In The Pages of a Book

      This is SO interesting! I'm a nut about legends, so this was right up my alley! Voted up!

    • amymarie_5 profile imageAUTHOR

      amymarie_5 

      6 years ago from Chicago IL

      Yes!! I remember reading about krampus! What a great way to scare the kids! Gotta love the Germans! I'm gonna do a google search for those post cards. Maybe next yr I'll send krampus cards instead of my traditional Christmas cards. Ha!! Thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      St.Cyprian 

      6 years ago

      This is so cool! I didn't see it 'til after Christmas, but that's okay. I love the idea of witches for Christmas.

      And, it reminds me of another Christmas legend!

      Have you ever heard of Krampus? He's the guy who accompanies Santa and puts coal in the shoes of bad boys and girls in some German-speaking regions. He looks a lot like the devil, complete with a tail and horns, and there are tons of vintage Krampus Christmas postcards and such all over the 'net. Just plug "Krampus" into a search.

      Accolades and a vote up!

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