La Befana vien di notte / The Befana comes at night
Con le scarpe tutte rotte / In worn out shoes
Col vestito da romana / Dressed like a Roman
Viva viva la Befana! / Long live the Befana!
– An Italian Rhyme
For those who grew up in Rome, it may be hard to believe that this rhyme could be considered quite bizarre. For most Romans, the Befana Rhyme creates a wonderful nostalgia for childhood, and paints colorful and beautiful images of the past.
For the rest of the world, the tradition of the Befana may seem rather odd, and a bit disorienting if you happen to be in Rome during winter holiday. During the winter season, the Befana, who is a witch, is a prominent featured decoration alongside the Nativity and Santa; and has the impact of recalling Halloween rather than Christmas.
Much like Santa, the Befana is an important gift-bearing entity for Italian children. As described by Italian folklore, the Befana is an elderly woman, who is portrayed as a witch riding on a broomstick with a black shawl and carrying a large sack filled with gifts. The Befana, like Santa, has the job of rewarding children for their behavior. Her name is believed to stem from the Italian word Epifania (latin Epiphania), which means manifestation. La Festa dell’Epifania
This year, the Befana will be coming on Monday, the 6th (the Epiphany), with her gifts. On that morning, many children will rise early, donning their best Christmas stealth to sneak into their livingroom, despite the cold floors. Each one will be searching for their sock, one in which the Befana has placed something very special: either gift of delight sweets or a handy lump of coal.
With all this potential for gift-receiving during the holidays, Roman children seem to have it made–of course, only if their behavior has been quite good. Thus, each one will be asking themselves a very important question on the 5th: “Will I get candy or coals?”
Viva Le Befana, annual celebration the Three Kings’s journey (Jan. 5th)
The tradition of the Befana stems from a Christian legend that tells of the Befana meeting with the Three Kings (Wise Men, the Magi) just days before Jesus was born. In this meeting, it is said that they were seeking directions to find Jesus, but she did not know where he was. Instead, she offered them shelter and provided for them. Her care of them was so wonderful that the Kings asked her if she wanted to join them on their journey–of course, she declined as she was too busy with housework. After the Kings left, the Befana realized that she wanted to find Jesus as well, and set off to do so. However, she has yet to successfully locate Jesus, and so continues to do so by visiting each child and leaving a “gift.”
Beyond the Christian tradition, there was an ancient Roman festival period that spanned the period between the winter solstice, the Natalis Invicti (believed to be the birthday of the Sol Invictus), and the resurrection of the Sol Invictus (Unconquerable Sun) that is said to coincide with Christian celebrations ending with the Epiphany. The worship of the sun was indigenous to the Roman people, and over the years there has been much debate about the relationship between the dates given for Jesus’ birth and also for the Epiphany itself.
Regardless of Christian tradition or ancient Roman beliefs, the twelve days after Christmas mark a period of expectation for Italian children. This year the Twelfth Night, January 5th, will find many still celebrating in Rome and throughout Italy. You will find the holiday market of Piazza Navona still active and busy with stalls chocked full of Befana dolls for your delight.
Continue to enjoy the joy of Christmas and the magic of the Epiphany as you spend time in the Eternal City welcoming a new year.
Happy Holidays to All!
Let’s Hope that the Befana Brings You Sweets & Not Coal!
Original Article by Samir Hassan
(Translated & Edited by Diedré Blake)
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