La Befana: Italy’s Christmastide Gift-giver

la_befanaTomorrow is the twelfth day of Christmas. That means that tomorrow night, Epiphany Eve, marks the yearly journey of La Befana, Italy’s answer to Santa Claus, as she brings gifts to children far and wide.

Where did La Befana (or simply Befana) come from? One possibility is that her origins lie in the ancient Roman goddess Strina or Strenia, who was associated with new-year gift-giving. Both Strina and La Befana are said to give gifts of figs, dates, and honey. Both, also, were/are celebrated with noisy, rowdy observances.

In folklore, La Befana showed hospitality to the three wise men on their journey to visit the Christ Child (which is the point of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6). She passed up, however, the opportunity to see him for herself, protesting that she had too much housework to do. Later, she had a change of heart and tried to catch up with the wise men. Legend says she is still searching for the infant Jesus to this day.

La Befana’s name is a corruption of Epifania, the Italian rendition of Epiphany.

Like Santa Claus, La Befana enters houses via the chimney in order to fill children’s stockings with candy and presents of they are good or with a lump of coal if they were bad. She may be somewhat more lenient than Santa, however, because misbehaving children might find dark candy in their stocking. In Sicily, however, they might just find a stick!

Despite her Santa-like attributes, La Befana is often depicted in a decidedly witchy manner. She is said to look like an old lady riding a broomstick and wrapped in a black shawl. Like Clement Moore’s Saint Nicholas, she is covered in soot because of her chimney-based entrances. She is a friendly witch, however, often smiling as she carries her bag of treats.

Also unlike Santa, La Befana has a domestic streak. She might, in fact, sweep the floor before she leaves–interpreted by some to be sweeping away the problems of the old year.

Finally, this being Italy, it is traditional to leave her not milk and cookies but a glass of wine and a few morsels of food.

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