According to Christian tradition, January 6th is the date on which the 3 wise men finally arrived at the stable in Bethlehem to offer Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The occasion is celebrated as Epiphany, Epifania in Italian, and is an extremely important part of the Christmas festivities. For some Italian families Epiphany is even more important than Christmas itself and is a big day for celebrating and exchanging presents. But Santa doesn’t bring these presents, they’re brought by a witch called Befana who flies in on a broomstick. So just who is Befana?
Legend has it that the three kings stopped to ask Befana for directions to Bethlehem, but she didn’t know so offered to put them up for the night as she had the best-kept house. The wise men invited Befana to travel with them, but she said she had too much housework to do. But Befana kept thinking about the invitation and eventually decided to follow the kings to find Jesus. She carried a sack filled with bread and whenever she saw a child she gave him a piece of bread hoping he might be the Christ child. Sadly, though, Befana never managed to catch up with the wise men and never found the stable in Bethlehem so is still wandering through Italy on her broomstick looking for the baby and leaving goodies for children.
Some also suggest that Befana could originate from the Sabine or Roman goddess named Strina as Romans used to give presents of sweets to celebrate the new year. Nowadays, however, she is portrayed as an old woman wearing a shawl and riding a broomstick. She is also often covered in soot as, like Santa Claus, she delivers presents via the chimney. Her name means “gift-bringer” and many suggest that she also sweeps the floor before she leaves as a way of sweeping away last year’s problems.
Just like at Christmas, children leave stockings out on the evening of 5th January hoping that Befana will leave presents and sweets. They also often leave the witch a snack of something soft as she has hardly any teeth!
But if children haven’t been good they risk just being left a lump of coal or a stick, although these days the coal tends to be rock candy called carbone made from caramel. And in a change from the past, most Italian children now get a piece of rock candy coal as no child has been perfect over the year! Parents still use the threat of the Befana to ensure good behaviour though, saying “Lo dico alla Befana!” (I’ll tell Befana), or the terrifying “Viene la Befana e ti porta via!” (Befana will come and take you away)!! Its enough to scare even the naughtiest child as Befana is well-known to have a terrible husband who likes to devour children!!
Apart from presents, festivities take various forms around Italy. In the Veneto region wood bonfires or roghi are lit on the night of the 5th January to tell the future from the direction of the smoke. Cities such as Florence have large parades headed by the 3 wise men on horseback.
Rome has a large market in Piazza Navona where toys, sugar charcoal and other candies are on sale. And in Urbania, thought to be Befana’s official home, some 30,000-50,000 people attend the festivities to watch as hundreds of Befanas fly down from the main tower.
The highlight in Venice, however, is definitely the Regata delle Befane, the regatta of the witches, that takes place at 11am on the Grand Canal.
Retired gondoliers and Bucintoro rowing club members dressed as old Befana or vecie maranteghe in Venetian dialect, race between San Tomá and the Rialto Bridge where a large stocking is hung from the parapet.
A band plays at the bridge throughout the morning. And hot chocolate, vin brulé and sweet biscuits are handed out to the crowds of spectators by the Pink Lionesses rowing club as they wait for the Befane to arrive.
Around town, patisseries also sell fried doughnuts with dried fruit in and mammaluchi fritters with raisins as a traditional treat for locals to eat along with their hot chocolate.
And as with all Venetian regattas the winners are awarded silk pennants.
Stockings filled with sweets are also handed out for free to children at the Fish Market near the Rialto Bridge. Kids can have their photos taken with Befana and everyone can have a hot chocolate, hot wine, chunk of pandoro cake or handful of peanuts for a donation to the Rialto Association.
Its also worth taking a walk over to St Mark’s on Epiphany as there is a special procession of an angel and the wise men above the clock on the Torre dell’Orologio in tribute to the Madonna and child. The wise men process every hour, on the hour but can only be seen on Epiphany and in May for the Ascension so don’t miss them! (The statues are often on display inside for visitors to the clock tower but only process twice a year).
So there you have it. Whilst decorations are already down and packed away in the UK, celebrations are continuing in Italy for one more day of food, family and flying witches. I hope you were good and got lots of presents this morning. But if you missed Befana, make sure you’re in bed before she arrives next January or you might get a thump from her broomstick as she flies past! You have been warned!
Epiphany is a public holiday in Italy so government offices, Post offices, banks, schools and other educational institutions are closed.
Transport options, such as taxis, rail services between major cities and major long-route bus lines, are available on Epiphany but you’re advised to check first with local transport authorities.
There are various nursery rhymes about Befana –
La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!
The English translation is:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
Another version is given in a poem by Giovanni Pascoli –
Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana
The English translation is:
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!