Christmas comes but once a year, but it’s a little known fact that in Italy, children get two bites at the panforte. Another festival, with huge similarities to the festivities on the 25th December, occurs just twelve days later. On the night of the 5th January, Italian children hang up their stockings at the end of the bed and go to sleep having been warned not to open their eyes if they should hear noises in the middle of the night.
When they awake in the morning, they will find their stocking filled with chocolates, sweets, and often presents, if they’ve been good. If they’ve been bad they will find lumps of coal. But it’s not that Santa Claus is so busy with the kids in other countries that he takes twelve days to get to Italy. This time the gifts are bought by a peculiarly Italian character, an old, old lady known as la befana.
The origins of la befana are lost in the proverbial mists of time, but it seems that she is a much older character than Father Christmas and dates back to Roman times, or beyond. In fact, one could probably conclude that many of the modern Santa Claus traditions, ultimately derive from her, particularly the stockings and the coal.
It’s commonly assumed that her name derives from a mispronunciation of epifania (Epiphany), whose feast she shares, but there is also a theory that the she, along with the name, derives from that of a pre-Roman goddess of the New Year and purification, Strenia. In Roman times, twigs from her sacred grove were used to sweep clean the Arx Capitolina, the ancient citadel of Rome. La befana carries a broomstick, which she uses to sweep the floor of your house before she leaves. Romans gave each other New Year gifts in her honour, which apprently were called bastrina and until recently Christmas gifts were called strenne.
Over the years, a Christian legend, associated with Epiphany (the day in which the three Kings or magi, arrived to give the baby Jesus gifts) has grown up. In the legend, la befana was an old lady who gave hospitality to the three Kings towards the end of their journey. They invited her to go and find the baby with them, but she was too busy cleaning her house so she said no. Soon after, she regretted it and went off in search of them, but never found them or the baby. She was then condemned to wander the world for ever, searching out the baby Jesus and every 5th January, she enters houses where there are children, leaving them gifts, in penance.
Today, la befana is still widely celebrated and on 26th December, Italian shops are suddenly full of what look like witches riding broomsticks, and stockings stuffed with sweets. On 5th January, children everywhere hang up their stockings, and keep their eyes closed if they wake up in the night. Apparently, she doesn’t like to be seen and will give you a whack with her broomstick if you do. (Notwithstanding this, she appears on TV quiz shows and turns up in town squares on the 5th January.) Kids sing this traditional song about her:
« La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
con le toppe alla sottana
Viva, Viva La Befana! »
La Befana comes at night,
With holes in her shoes,
With patches sewn on her clothes,
Long live La Befana!