Con le toppe alla sottana, viva, viva la Befana!”
(“La Befana comes at night, her shoes all torn, her slip all patched…long live the Befana!”)
Clutching her broom handle in front of her, an ugly old beneficent witch, La Befana, rides through the starry night sky on January 5th, sliding down chimneys to fill the shoes or the stockings of good Italian children with sweets, leaving coal (nowadays, made of sugar!) for naughty ones. Our three – Italian father, American mother – were always envied among classmates: Santa filled their stockings on Christmas Eve and the Befana on January 5th eve. Two strikes of fortune. Lots of laughter in our house one January 6th morning when ashes from our fireplace filled my stocking!
The good witch’s name derives from the Latin Epiphania which then becomes Pifania, then Bifania, Befania and finally “Befana“. Epiphaneia (Greek), meaning “manifestation of a divinity”, celebrates the manifesting of Christ to the world, ie, the Child visited by the Magi. La Befana is the Christianizing of an archaic figure, Madre Natura, who has become old, brittle, dry by the end of the year, a “Befana” to saw apart, to burn. In fact, in some rural areas until quite recently, high pyres of wood topped with straw were lit the night of January 5th. On top of the high wooden cone a sort of scarecrow figure of an old woman burned, “la vecia” (the old woman) or “la stria” (the witch), i.e, La Befana. Chesnut wood and thorns in the wood pile assured snapping, explosive sounds – like fireworks (whose noise and light “kill” the old year going out). Some said the huge fire was made so that the Madonna could dry the swaddling clothes of the Gesu Bambino, others believed the light of the bonfire lit the way for the Magi. The Sega-la-vecchia (“saw-the-old-woman”) tradition is slowly fading out in Umbria but La Befana lives on.
In Perugia, La Befana rode in an antique car, preceded by a cavalcade of motorcycles, to the firehouse where the anxious children awaited her. After the distribution of sweets and hot drinks for all, La Befana thrilled the little ones with her descent from the firehouse tower. On to the hospital and the pediatric ward, once La Befana had warmed up with a hot drink (probably NOT hot chocolate!).
Acrobatic Befanas swoop down from the belltowers of Todi, Citta’ di Castello and S. Biagio della Valle, Marsciano (Italian firemen are very busy on January 6th), delighting the open-mouthed little ones in the piazzas below. La Befana arrived by canoe at towns along the Nera River and she came by boat to a small town on Lake Trasimeno. Umbria’s most daring Befana swooped down on a paraglider in Rivotorto di Assisi.
La Befana on a broomstick? Only the ones hanging on our Christmas tree.
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