La Befana

7 Jan

As I was about to leave work this afternoon, Federica told me that she had left out a sock for me for Befana to fill. She handed me one of Matilde’s anti-slip socks bulging with little hard candies and chocolates while Matilde bounced on her toes to have a piece or two because it was, after all, her sock.

Befana is an old witch who visits the homes of Italian children on the eve of Epiphany, January 6, the day the Three Wise Men reached the baby Jesus. One Christian legend says the Three Wise Men met Befana on their way and stopped to ask her directions. She didn’t know, but her house was so neat and clean, they decided to stay there for the night. They invited Befana to come with them the next morning, but she declined, she had too much house-cleaning to do, and then too late changed her mind and tried to follow them. She’s never found the baby Jesus, and as she searches she manages a naughty and nice list for all of the other Italian children, with the nice children getting caramels and toys and the naughty children receiving coal, onions, or garlic.

The story of Befana is likely from pagan tradition, though, specifically that of Strenia, the Roman goddess of strength and endurance. Strenia distributed gifts of honey, figs, and dates at the New Year, and one can see how pagans would have adapted their customs to fit the Christian calendar and slap a new name on them. As one scholar put it, “Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity.”

When I told Federica that Befana doesn’t visit children in the U.S., that instead Santa makes the rounds on Christmas Eve, she was floored. That only increased when I told her I’d never heard of Epiphany before arriving in Italy—here it’s a national holiday with the shops closing and everything. I should check with her to see if Santa exists in Italy, because I can’t remember seeing any evidence of the jolly old man during the Christmas festivities.

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2 Responses to “La Befana”

  1. Ampbreia January 7, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    Nice story! This is a custom I never heard of. Such fun! And yeah, the fun stuff does tend to come from old Pagan traditions. It doesn’t make them less fun though, does it? What brought you to Italy? And how has it been for you?

    • valerienicole January 8, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

      Befana seems to be an Italy-only tradition, but she’s certainly familiar to anyone who ever believed in Santa Claus! I’m in Italy for the year with my partner who’s doing the first year of a master’s program here. It’s been great fun–I’m learning something new all the time!

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