the history and curiosities to know about January 6th

January 7, 2021

nbc news

January 6 is the feast of the Befana: we discover the curiosities related to this day long awaited by children.


Like every year, the first days of January all the children start thinking about the Befana, the old woman who brings so many sweets for the good children and coal for the bad ones on the night of the Epiphany.

While Baby Jesus awaits the arrival of the Magi, with gold, frankincense and myrrh, Italian children await the arrival of the Befana, with the hope that she will bring many sweets and other gifts. But where does the tradition of the Befana originate? We tell you about it.

The story of the Befana

The word Befana is a transformation of the Greek word Epiphany (epifáneia), which means “manifestation “or” apparition“, through bifanìa is befanìa.

The Epiphany of the Lord and the “manifestation of the Lord to the world“, The Christian feast of January 6 celebrated with theadoration of the Magi. TO this day is also linked to the arrival of the Befana, a very old, wrinkled woman with a hooked nose, who wears a wide skirt, an apron with pockets, a woolen shawl over her shoulders and a handkerchief around her head (although today we tend to depict her with a pointed black hair, according to the tradition of Anglo-Saxon witches – a representation which follows fashions more than tradition).

The Befana travels on an old sorghum broom, with a big sack on his shoulders and in the night between 5 and 6 January he visits the houses where the children live for leave gifts and sweets in stockings hung by the fireplace, the Christmas tree or near a window. Like Santa Claus, the Befana also moves on the roofs of the houses and goes down into the chimneys.

To the children who have been good and they performed well the Befana leaves sweets, chocolates, nougats, lollipops, other sweets, dried fruit and small games in her socks.

To children who have behaved badly and been badinstead leave the coal, in some areas of Italy too the garlic.

THE WITCHIn some areas there is the custom of leave for the Befana a plate with a mandarin or an orange and a glass of wine

Origin of the Befana festival

The origin of the feast of the Befana is most likely linked to ancient pagan propitiatory rites that they celebrated the seasonal cycles of agriculture (the harvest, the sowing, the good omen for the future harvest), such as the feasts for agricultural deities. These rites were then absorbed by the Romans on their holidays linked to the winter solstice and the end of the solar year.

In Roman calendar it was celebrated on period between the end of the calendar year, coinciding with the winter solstice, and the recurrence of Sol Invictus, the Invicting Sun, which was celebrated on 25th December. The twelfth night after the winter solstice it was celebrated the death and rebirth of nature through Mother Nature. While epiphany Christian is celebrated 12 days after Christmas, on January 6 precisely.

In the twelve nights between the winter solstice and the death and rebirth of nature, the ancient Romans believed some female figures flew over the cultivated fields, to propitiate the fertility of future crops. From this belief was born the legend of the flying female figure, just like the Befana or other witch figures belonging to other traditions. According to some, the flying female figure was Diana, the goddess of the Moon, of hunting and also of vegetation; according to others this female figure was another deity, Sàtia (goddess of satiety), or Abùndia (goddess of abundance).

Even in the Germanic mythology there are female figures who can be linked to the Befana, such as Holda and Berchta (Perchta), deities linked to nature, winter and hunting. The Befana was the symbol of the past year, now as old as the Befana itself, and the gifts brought by the old woman were symbols of good omen for the year that had just begun.

THE THREE MAGI KINGS STATUINEIn the Christian tradition, the story of the Befana is linked to that of the Magi. According to one legend, on a very cold winter night i three Magi, Gaspar, Baldassare and Melchiorre, traveling to get to Bethlehem from the Child Jesus, unable to find the way, asked information to an old woman who showed them the way. The Three Kings invited her to join them, but despite the insistence the woman refused. However, as soon as they were gone, the old woman regretted not following the Three Kings, so she prepared a sack full of sweets and began looking for them, but unable to find them. The old lady, therefore, began to knock on every door and to give sweets to every child he met, in the hope that one of them was just Baby Jesus. The story of the Befana, therefore, is linked to many stories and legends, taking something a little from each.

Curiosities about the Befana and places to celebrate

Famous is the nursery rhyme:

The Befana comes at night
with shoes all broken
with a Roman hat
long live the Befana!

(In another version: with the Roman dress)

THE STOCKINGS OF THE EPIPHANAEqually famous is the traditional festival that Rome dedicates to the Befana, with the historic market in Piazza Navona, much loved by children of all ages.

Another traditional festival, but which has only become famous throughout Italy in recent years, is the National party of the Befana of Urbania, a small town in the northern Marche region, in the province of Pesaro-Urbino. Here children are welcomed into the House of the Befana, open all year round.

To Venice on January 6th the Regatta of the Befane, a real competition with the athletes disguised as witches, “maranteghe” in the Venetian dialect.

While in Milan there is the motorcyclists procession, the Charity motorcycle Befana, an event that brings solidarity with gifts, sweets and offers to some institutes in Milan for children, non-disabled and severely disabled people.

There are many other initiatives and events throughout Italy dedicated to the Befana, a party that has made a comeback in recent years, becoming very popular with young and old. A party for the whole family, to rediscover ancient traditions and the pleasure of being all together.

And how do you unimamme celebrate the Befana? Have your children already hung up their socks?

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