The Befana: between history and tradition


La Befana vien di notte

con le scarpe tutte rotte

col cappello alla romana

viva viva la Befana!

Traditional Italian ditty, roughly translated as:

The Befana comes at night

With her shoes all full of holes

With her Roman pointy hat

Hurray, hurray for the Befana!

Christmas has gone, New Year’s Day too…and now she’s the only one left: the Befana!

On 6th January – Epiphany day – children in Italy receive stockings full of sweets, brought to them by a sweet old lady with a big nose who flies around on a broomstick.

But where does this tradition come from, and what is the Befana’s story?

We can say for certain that the origins of this holiday are linked to Christianity, and in particular to the story of baby Jesus and the Three Kings.

Epiphany is a word that comes from ancient Greek and which means “apparition”, “manifestation”, with reference to the baby Jesus revealing himself to the Three Kings. But what have the Three Kings got to do with the Befana? 

According to tradition, in their travels towards Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus, the Three Kings stopped to ask an old lady for directions, and they ended up inviting her to come with them to visit the child. The woman however refused.

Regretting this decision, the little old lady prepared a basket full of sweets and started off on a journey searching for the Three Kings, but without success. So, in the hope of finding baby Jesus, she stopped at all the houses along her trip, giving away the sweets.

To make up for her mistake, she started travelling the world every year leaving sweets in people’s homes.

How do other Countries celebrate Epiphany?

– In France on 6th January people prepare the Galette des rois. This is an almond- based cake inside which a small broad bean is hidden: whoever finds it is crowned king or queen for the day.

– In Spain it is the Three Kings who bring gifts to children instead, on the night between 5th and 6th January, with the Cabalgata de los Reyes:  according to the tradition, children leave a glass of water outside the door for the camels to drink after their long journey.

– In Hungary, children dress up as the Three Kings and go visit other houses bringing a small nativity scene with them: in exchange for this they receive some spare change.  

– In Russia instead the Befana is called Babuschka and brings gifts to children together with Father Frost (Ded Moroz in Russian).

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