An Italian nursery rhyme says “the Befana comes at night with her broken shoes“: but who is the Befana and what does she has to do with Epiphany?
She is an old woman, a little bruised and not so reassuring, and she travels on a broom. In the night between the 5th and 6th of January, she is at work to bring gifts that she will put in the wool socks hanging on the chimney of the houses: sweets to good children, coal to bad ones. She is loved in Italy as much as Santa Claus, but she is less famous especially outside the country.
On the 6th of January in Italy the Epiphany is celebrated, a feast linked to the adoration of the Wise men who came to Bethlehem following the comet twelve days after Christmas with the gifts for the Baby Jesus. In the Italian cultural history came the imposing figure of the Befana: the ugly but good old woman with a hooked and pimply nose who travels on a broom. A metaphor that serves to evoke the coming of the Wise men. It is a particularly folkloristic holiday that brings with it the typicality of the places where it is celebrated, traditions and mysteries that talk about superstitions and auspicious rites.
The Befana, in certain traditions, represents the feminine allegory of the year just ended ready to sacrifice itself to give life to a new and prosperous period. Many regions are united by the custom of “burning the old woman”: a huge wood and rags puppet is burned on a high stake. It is believed to be a good omen for the harvest in the fields and able to exorcise all the problems of the past year.
In the North-East of Italy this tradition is very lively. In Veneto, the symbolic bonfire is called “Panevin” or “Pasquetta“, it is a pyre that tends to cancel the negative aspects of the year just ended and search for good hopes in the one just started, looking at the direction of the sparks. In Friuli, on the other hand, it is used to run between the rows of vines, with bundles of burning reeds, shouting: “Pan e vin, pan e vin, la grazia di Dio gioldarin (Bread and wine, bread and wine, we will enjoy the grace of God)“, all accompanied by a glass of mulled wine and a piece of typical “focaccia”.
In some places of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna the bonfire of the “brusavecia” (that is “burning the Befana”) is anticipated by a ride through the streets of the center on a cart pulled by oxen.
In Florence, every year the Epiphany is celebrated with the traditional Cavalcade of the Three Kings, on the streets of the historic center, on horseback, wearing Renaissance costumes with great pomp. It is a commemoration of the Wise men arrival to the Holy Family. In Piazza della Signoria, the show of flag-wavers is not to be missed.
In Sicily, in Gratteri, in the province of Palermo, the Befana is wrapped in a white sheet and on the back of a donkey and runs along the road into the center of the city where she distributes gifts to the little ones.
In Montescaglioso, in the area of Matera, January the 5th is the turn of the “Night of Cucibocca“: dark dressed figures, with a big hat and thick white beard, move through the streets with a lighted lantern, dragging a broken chain at their foot and knocking on doors to ask for food offers.
This is a tradition linked to the widespread belief in some places in the south of Italy: on the night before the Epiphany, people want the return of their loved ones, previously deads. It is they, and not the famous old lady, who in some cases fill with sweets the socks hung by the children.
The Befana is a magical holiday, imbued with profound symbolic values, so much that in some places it is believed that even animals can talk and finally say what they think to human beings. It is certain that the Epiphany closes the Christmas holidays and marks the beginning of the Carnival.