The name Befana appeared historically for the first time in writing in a poem by Agnolo Firenzuola 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 (in modern apartments through a keyhole). Into the socks that children left hanging near the fireplace she leaves candies and gifts for good children, black coal (actually black sugar today), garlic and onions to the bad ones. Parents of course would always include some coal over the gifts, to cheat their children. And the night before the family leaves some wine and cakes for the old lady.
The Christian Tradition
The name "Befana" is a popular version of the Greeek term "Epiphany" which was the festivity following Christmas, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus on 6th January. According to the legend the three wise men on their journey were stopped by an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that they were following a star that would lead them to a newborn baby, and invited her to come along. But she replied that she was busy sweeping and cleaning and did not go. When she realized that the baby was the Redeemer that all the world had been waiting for her regret was so great that she continues to wander about Italy and at the Epiphany (January 6, when the Wise Men finally found the Child Jesus), begins rewarding good children and disappointing those who were bad.
This was the feast that the children used to wait for throughout the year, in the times when Babbo Natale (created in Coca Cola colors, the fat and joyous symbol of wealth imported from America, where he was derived from the figure of St Nicholas, who in Southern Italy used to bring gifts to children in past centuries) was unknown in Italy. The bony, ragged old lady was much nearer in spirit to the poverty of Jesus, and was the only gift-giver for children. The gifts she delivered were reminders of the gifts that on that same night the Magi following the star had offered to the Divine Child, born in a poor manger in Bethlehem.
The feast of these fabulous old lady, so much beloved and feared by Italian children, takes origin from the "old lady" which was burned in the squares to celebrate the end of the year, a symbol of time cycles always ending and beginning again. The Befana is also related to the mysterious rites of the Celtic peoples once inhabiting the whole Pianura Padana and part of the Alps, when wicker puppets were set on fire in honor of ancient gods. The witch, the woman magician (the priestess of the ancient celtic culture that knew the secrets of nature) took the form of the Befana. 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". The other almost universal symbol accompanying the old lady, the broom, that clearly resembles a magic wand, is also connected to the tree and the nature rituals of the Celts in their forests. In the pre-Christian calendar solstice rites used to celebrate the cycle of the sun, and were slowly merged with the cycle of the life of man and the generations, following one another. This eternal cycle was represented by symbols to exorcise anxiety. 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 and pedagogical figures of Santa Claus and the Befana. As a testimonial of this connection, here is an old Italian lullaby that goes
questo bimbo a chi lo do
se lo do alla Befana
se lo tiene una settimana
se lo do all'Uomo Nero
se lo tiene un anno intero
ma se il bimbo fa la nanna
se lo tiene la sua mamma"
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"
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. Especially on that twelfth night (see Shakespeare), the night of the Epiphany, which was considered one of the magic nights in the year. And our Befana with her broken shoes actually flies on a broom, another important magic symbol in a number of European cultures. In anthropology the Epiphany, the last festivity of the Christmas period, is considered a celebration of renewal, announcing the coming of the new season. In the peasant culture that was the moment when forecasts and predictions on the future were drawn, and people used to sit around the fireplace telling fantastic tales. On that magical night our great-grandparents used to look into the future interpreting natural phenomena.
In the Romagna region Epiphany was a pagan festival when the Ancestors (symbols of a worship of the dead connected to agrarian symbols of fertility) brought a good omen of abundance to the living. From that take origin the Befanotti (representing the ancestors) going from home to home singing the "Pasquella", and also the Befana coming down through the chimneys.
In Abruzzo, as in other Southern regions of Italy, the children's most beloved festivity was called Pasquetta, possibly to remind of the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem to homage the Child Jesus, or for the songs and music in the streets accompanied by tambourines, cymbals and flutes, especially before the mansions of the rich, requesting gifts and food.
Widespread in Abruzzo is the worship of little statues of Child Jesus. There is a beautiful tradition in Lama dei Peligni on the evening of the Epiphany. The villagers, especially the children, go to the church to kiss the statue of Gesù Bambino, kept inside a precious silver urn, and dressed in apparel and with a head cover of the year 1759.
If an olive tree leaf, thrown into the fire, took long to burn it was a sign that the wish would be fulfilled, if instead it burned quickly, the opposite. Girls (see Finamore in "Credenze, usi e costumi abruzzesi") used to pray before going to bed wishing for their future bridegroom to come into their dreams. And under their pillow they placed three broad beans: one full, one without peel, the other half-peeled. Then in the morning they caught one: the full one meant the groom would be rich, the unpeeled one he would be poor, the half-peeled one something in the middle.
On the morning of January 6th sacristans would go from house to house leaving the "Bboffe water", which was kept for devotion or used to sprinkle the rooms to keep witches away.
A non-conformist Befana
Alas, this picture of the benevolent old fairy has been fading away, year after year, obscured by the myth of the "fat red-dressed laughing servant of consumerism", and the children stare at a playstation screen and not at the sky in search of the Befana.
On the web site redbefana.com there is an amusing, non-conventional re-evaluation of the Befana:
"The Befana is Alternative because:
1- She is Ecological, since she travels on a broom
2- She is an Animalist, since she does not exploit poor reindeer
3- She is a Proletarian, since she dresses in non-fashionable clothes
4- She is a Justice Bearer, since she rewards only deserving ones
5- She is Tolerant, since her punishments are very mild, just ashes and coal
6- She is not Exacting, since in exchange for all her work she only takes some bread soaked in wine or milk."