There are various legends and Christmas characters associated with the traditions of Christmas. On Epiphany Eve (January 5th), children throughout Italy are given gifts by an ugly, old woman known as 'Befana', in a similar manner to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus. The beauty of Christmas traditions lies in the diverse tales and legends related to this festival and, of course, with the gift-givers that are oh-so-indispensable for this global celebration. This is probably one of the reasons that make Christmas a diverse, unique and ubiquitous festival, celebrated by billions of people around the world. In popular folklore, Befana presents children with delicious candies and presents if they have been good. On the contrary, if the children have been mischievous during the year, their stockings and socks are found filled with lumps of coal. Portrayed as a shady woman riding a broomstick and wearing a black shawl, Befana's appearance has often been compared to that of a witch's, although her smile sets her apart. To know more about this Christmas legend, read on.
The Epiphany Gift-Bringer
The origin of Befana's name was derived from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word 'epifania'. Other legends point out that Befana stemmed from the word 'Bastrina', the gifts associated to the Goddess Strina. This gift giving tradition has been linked to pre-dated Roman festivities and Celtic customs. In many parts of Europe, an old lady puppet or an old lady, often associated with fertility and agriculture, was believed to distribute gifts among children. The origins of the character of Befana are also linked to Pre-Christian Alpine traditions.
Legend states that a few days before the birth of Jesus Christ, Three Wise Men, also known as the biblical Magi, knocked on the doors of Befana while she was sweeping the floors. They claimed that they had seen a bright star in the sky and asked for directions to get to the 'Son of God'. She did not know the route but offered them refuge for the night. The Magi pleaded with her to come with them in their search for Baby Jesus, but she refused them on account of the bad weather. She was blessed for her kind-heartedness, and after the Magi left, she felt a change and wanted to see the baby. However, she was unsuccessful in her endeavors of reaching him. It is believed that Befana is still looking for Baby Jesus and every year, leaves presents with all children she comes across. This is because she believed that Jesus Christ could be found in all children.
Another adaptation to this story is a slightly darker one. It is believed that Befana was taking care of a child whom she really loved. After the sudden death of this child, the maddening grief left her delusional. Upon hearing the news of Baby Jesus's birth, she left her house immediately and went in search of the boy. She eventually came upon the child, and presented him with gifts that made him happy. Since he was delighted with the old woman, Baby Jesus blessed her so that she would be the universal mother of every child born in Italy.
Children who try to catch a glimpse of Befana on Christmas Eve are usually thumped with her broomstick as it is believed that she does not wish to be seen. This belief probably stems from stories narrated to children who refused to sleep at night on Epiphany Eve. In popular folklore, Befana visits the children in Italy, presents them with either gifts or coal, and dines on wine and a few morsels of food at night while everyone is asleep.
Befana is portrayed as an old woman with wrinkled skin, riding her broomstick and dropping off presents in households with children. She wears a black shawl and is believed to be covered in soot because of travelling down the chimney and carries a black sack with gifts, candy and coal. Although the description of this character may seem dark, Befana is a friendly old woman with a pleasant demeanour.
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!
Although Befana might seem like a grim character, she is, in fact, one of the most popular gift-givers in Italy. Children eagerly await the Epiphany Eve, and promise to be good so that they can receive gifts and not blocks of coal and garlic pods in their stockings. Befana has been recently popularized in books, comics, poems and songs, and although her origin dates back to ancient times, many children in Italy still believe in this Christmas character to date.
Befana is the famous Italian gift-bringer who delivers gifts to children on Epiphany Eve. Read on to know more about this old woman and her relevance to Christmas.