The streets were deserted this morning as I walked to work – the normal din of traffic at the main intersection of Regina Margherita and Nomentana totally stilled. The buses and trams are empty and most bars and shops are closed for the day. January 6th is a holiday in Italy – for everyone except us it would appear. Theoretically it is the Feast of the Epiphany but really is is a celebration of La Befana, a folkloric figure who’s name may well be a corruption of the word Epiphania.
I wrote about her, her story and some of the traditions surrounding her last year at this time. I’ve since come across a slightly darker telling of her story. According to one legend she was an simple woman with a child she loved with all her heart. When the child died she became mad in her grief. When she heard of the birth of Jesus she set out to find him, in her madness believing him to be her lost child. When she found the Christ Child she presented him with simple gifts of sweets and oranges. The delighted infant smiled and gave La Befana a gift in return: for one brief night each year she would be the mother of all the children in Italy.
Though the tradition continues of La Befana bringing gifts on the eve of Epiphany, I noticed a very subtle change from last year – more of the Befani being sold at the Christmas market in Piazza Navona resembled witches. Now my friend Vin was very specific last year – La Befana is not a witch, she does not wear a pointed hat but a headscarf. Her face is not evil, only wrinkled and ugly and sooty from coming down the chimney. But even the windows (at the right) of Dagnino, the Sicilian confectionery, had Befani that resemble Halloween witches more than the old lady of Italy folklore. The only reason I can think of for the change in persona is that what’s made for Halloween in North American can also be used for Befana in Italy. I hope that isn’t the reason but I fear it may well be.
One friend told me he recalls that when he was a child the night before Epiphania was the most magical time of the year. And though Babo Natale may be slowly taking over I’m sure that last night it was the same for children throughout Italy. La Befana, pointed hat or not, made her rounds, visiting the children; leaving the traditional gifts of sweets, pastries and fruits for the good children and lumps of coal for the bad ones. And perhaps still looking for her lost child.
Just a side note: it is traditional here to leave out a biscuit and a glass of wine for La Befana – and quite often the tipple will be the same as the favorite libation of the master of the house. Strange how these things work.
06 gennaio – La Epiphania