In the night of 5. on the 6. January a witch makes her rounds in Italy. This is reminded by our southern European neighbors of the tradition of the La befana or. the Night of the Befana. Reason enough to give this occasion its own entry in the calendar of the curious holidays from all over the world and to accompany the witch figure on her ride.
La befana or the night of the Befana in Italy. Curious holidays – 6. January © 2020 Sven Giese
Who is the Befana?
In Italian folklore, Befana is a witch who flies from house to house on her broom and either gives children presents or punishes them. Although some sources also refer to her as a female demon, the typical depiction is that of an old, ugly witch (see the other posts from the spooky holidays calendar for more on this). This aspect is also found in the Italian colloquial language, which uses Befana as a synonym for the term "ugly woman". In contrast to the typical witch figure from fairy tales, the Italians attribute primarily positive characteristics to the Befana (see also the list of further links below).
Similar to St. Nicholas, she gives presents to the good children and punishes the offspring who have been naughty during the year. Many cultural scientists and folklorists see in the Befana, however, also a parallel figure to the alpine Perchta and the Central European Frau Holle (see especially the article on the day of Frau Holle as the end of the Rauhnachte on the 6. January, but also the entries on the Waldmannchentag in Germany on 2. January and the winter solstice on 21./22. December).
When is La Befana?
The Italian La Befana is in the night of 5. on the 6. January and thus shares the date with the feast of the Three Wise Men (see also the entry on the Irish Women’s Christmas (Irish: Nollaig na mBan – engl. Christmas of the women), which also always falls on the 6. January).
Why La befana falls on the night of the 5. on the 6. January?
As with most other local traditions, in the case of the Italian La befana there is a very specific reason for the date chosen. A first clue actually comes from the name of the witch, which derives from the Italian term Epifania and refers to the Epiphany, the Roman Catholic church feast of the Three Kings Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar on 6 January. January refers. Also in terms of content, a bridge can be built here to the holiday of the liturgical calendar (see also the article on the tradition of Walpurgis Night on 30. April).
This is because, according to various local legends, the witch heard the Good News of Christ’s birth from shepherds, but missed the star of Bethlehem because she left too late. Accordingly, her feast also falls on the night of 5. on the 6. January. In short, on this night Befana goes in search of the stable in Bethlehem and flies on her broom from house to house. It is not without reason that the figure is also known in Italy as the Christmas Witch (see also the list of related links below and the entry on the beginning of the Rauhnachte on 24. December).
When comes the Befana?
The Christmas witch Befana always arrives on the night of 5. on the 6. January through the chimneys of the houses and fills the hung up stockings resp. put up shoes with sweets and small gifts.
How to celebrate La Befana? Befana traditions in Italy
The reference to the figure of St. Nicholas or the U.S. Santa Claus already hinted at earlier – apart from the different gender and external appearance – is then also found in the typical traditions that are part of the Festa de la Befana in Italy:
- On the evening of 5. January, children all over the country hang stockings on the chimney of the house or put their shoes outside the door so that the witch fills them with gifts.
- According to popular belief, Befana then enters homes through the chimney during the night and fills the stockings or. Shoes with sweets and small gifts. It is not for nothing that an Italian rhyme says: La Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte (engl. The Befana comes in the night with her broken shoes).
- The only condition for the gifts: the children must have been good. Because naughtiness punishes the witch with a piece of coal in the stocking respectively. Shoe. Of course, not in the form of real coal, but as a black colored sugar mass, which is produced in Italy carbone dolce (dt. sweet coal) is called. So to speak a symbolic admonition by the Christmas witch. By the way, this combination of reward and punishment then moves the figure back into the vicinity of Perchta, who also combines these two aspects in her actions during the Rauhnachte (see also the list of related links below).
- Typical of the celebrations surrounding La Befana is also the tradition of having a witch figure "fly" from the bell tower of churches by gliding down a taut rope.
- Finally, a short historical excursion into the recent past: Unfortunately, the figure of the Befana was not immune from the influence of Italian fascism either. Thus, starting in 1928, people celebrated 6. January as the so-called Befana fascistia, during which the National Fascist Party (ital. Partitio Nazionale Fascista) distributed gifts to poor children nationwide (see the list of related links below).
And for those of you who can’t start with gift-bearing witches, the 6. January with the US-American Take Down the Christmas Tree Day (engl. Build-the-Christmas-Tree-Day), the day of the apple tree (engl. National Apple Tree Day), the day of the bean (engl. National Bean Day), the day of the Scottish shortbread (engl. National Shortbread Day) or the day of cuddling (engl. Cuddle Up Day), there are a number of calendar alternatives.
In this sense: Hope you have been good and to you all a great night of the Befana. No matter if in Italy, Germany or anywhere else in the world.