La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
viene e bussa alla tua porta
sai tu dirmi che ti porta?
Today, 6th January, is the Epifania, which means “manifestation”, “apparition”. But for million of Italians, children and a bit older, today is very simply “la Befana”, which means the day of the Befana herself. The “Befana” is an old lady who flies on her broom like a witch of old times and visits the dwellings of all children. If the child in question has been good she’ll leave for him a big sock (“calza”) filled with sweets; if he has been bad the sock will be filled with coals.
The Befana is still rather popular in Italy. Unpleasant old ladies invariably end up being associated to her, or it is said of them that it must be pleasant to them to be remembered on the 6th of January. Still, the Befana is never really hated and her unpleasantness is rather the source of amused understanding for the human shortcomings.
I was often told as a child than in former times (before the American invasion), the “Befana” and not Christmas was the main even for children. This was due (I remember being told) both to the fact that Christmas had a much more clearly defined religious dimension (and the focusing on sweets and/or gifts would have been considered inappropriate) and to the much leaner times which made big gifts unaffordable for most families but sweets in January within the reach of all but the very poor. I do not know whether this is historically accurate or perhaps the fruit of regional or even individual situations, but the main idea seems very credible to me.
In Italy as everywhere, the Befana marks the end of the Christmas time and the return to “normal” life after Christmas and New Year. If you have a presepio, you have started to move the Three Kings (“Re Magi”) toward the Christ on Christmas day (the day when you complete the presepio by putting Him in the cradle/manger), and have moved the kings a bit further every day. On the 6th January, the three kings arrive at destination and at that point it is pretty much time to dismount the presepio. Quando arriva l’Epifania tutte le feste si porta via.
The Befana has certainly suffered after WWII. The American invader brought the Christmas Tree which soon became very popular, the big gifts at Christmas became a habit and the growing prosperity made the tradition of the sock filled with sweet less, as they say today, “relevant”. But the good old lady is still sprightly. I believe that she is very popular particularly in Rome and clearly, Italians – and particularly Romans – like the Befana much more than the people to whom she is compared.
Let the Germans say “Dreikoenige”, (or “Three Kings”). I am attached to my good old Befana.