I love being Italian, well technically Italian-American. There are so many things about our cultural inheritance that enrich our lives. The food. The traditions. The music. From pasta fazool to Verdi’s La Traviata, I love it all. One of these traditions is the observance of the Epiphany and Befana. Growing up in the United States, the Epiphany passed without notice, with no mention of Befana. At least this was the case in our home. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I became aware of this tradition and the heartwarming stories that went with it.
I did not know of La Festa dell’EpifaniaI, the celebration of the Epiphany, which is a national holiday in Italy. Just as Christmas involves a visit from Santa, La Festa dell’Epifania includes a visit from Befana, a witch, who flies around the world on her broom visiting the home with Children. Like Santa, Befana leaves treats for good children while those who did not behave well receive coal, garlic, or onions. When I was a boy my parents told me that if I did not go to sleep Santa would not stop at our house; Italian children were told that if Befana found them awake when she arrived they would be rapped on the head with her broomstick.
There are a number of stories concerning Befana’s origin. One story ties the Befana legend in with the story of the Magi. In this story, Befana is known as being the best housekeeper in her village; in her clean comfortable home, she provided delicious bountiful meals. Naturally, when the Magi passed through her town they stayed with her. Impressed with her hospitality, they invited her to join them in their search for the newborn king. Befana, however, declined the offer since she was far too busy tending to her domestic responsibilities. Later, regretting the decision, she set out in search for the child on her own. Sadly, she was never able to find baby Jesus. So to this day, she searches, visiting homes with children.
When I hear this story, I can’t help but imagine my own mother in the role of Befana. I can see her rushing around the house making sure that everything is orderly. I can see her welcoming the visiting wise men, fussing over the meal to make sure it was worthy of visiting royalty. Most of all, however, I can see her refusing the invitation. “Go off with you three?!” I can hear her say, “I’ve got work to do. Are you crazy? I don’t have time to run around Isreal looking for some baby.”
In another, more moving story, Befana was a mother who loved her child dearly, just like your typical Italian mother. Unfortunately, the child passed away. Incapable of dealing with the loss of the child, when she heard of the birth of Jesus she set out to find him, believing the Christ child to be her lost son. After a lengthy search, Befana finally meets Jesus giving him gifts out of her motherly love. Jesus pleased by the devotion of this woman, gives her a gift beyond measure, making her the mother of every child in Italy.
I love this story. Going beyond the obvious joke here about how every Italian mother thinks her son is Jesus Christ, it a story of love and devotion. There is Befana’s love of her child and Christ’s response to this woman’s heart. This is the epitome of Christianity. Christ in looking at the heart of this woman sees her brokenness, her longing, her love. While he is unable to resurrect Befana’s lost child, the time for that has long passed, he instead fills her heart with the love of a nation of children.
You might assume that Befana is an Italian remake of Santa Clause, but Befana precedes Santa. Although some date the legend of Befana back to the eighth century, the roots of the Befana tradition go much further back. As I described in my book, Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American, many Italians integrated pagan customs and beliefs with Christianity. The name Befana, for example, is derived from Bastrina which are offerings made to the goddess of the new year, Strenia.
As the Epiphany approaches, cities and towns throughout Italy have celebrations in anticipation of Befana’s expected arrival. One of the best-known observances is Urbania’s La Befana running from January 2cd to the 6th. The festivities begin when the town receives Befana who arrives in a horse-drawn carriage. Then Befana’s Helpers, along with a band, parade down the main street of the town to her cottage. In Fornovo there is the annual Raduno Nazionale delle Befane e dei Befani where hundreds of Befane gather to celebrate Befana with competitions, concerts, parades, and plays. A tradition in Rome is the Befana Market in the Piazza Navona, home of Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers, where vendors offer toys and sweets in anticipation of the arrival of Itay’s favorite witch.
However, not all is well. The Befana Market has been plagued with controversy over the past few years with accusations of corruption. Over the past few years attendance has fallen although there are many who are trying to revive the market. I fear that the Befana Market is a bellwether of Befana’s fate. Historically, Italians have celebrated the Epiphany, exchanging gifts, waking to find what treasures Befana might have left behind. Unfortunately, with globalization, Santa Clause is becoming increasingly popular in Italy.
Now I don’t want to say anything that might get me on Santa’s naughty list, but I also feel strongly that we need to preserve our Italian traditions. Perhaps it may seem a bit odd that someone who did not learn of Befana until adulthood should warn of losing this tradition. I would argue, however, that is the very point. I feel cheated that I did not grow up with this tradition. I am sorry that many Italian-American children will wake up this Sunday without the expectation of their gifts from Befana, that it is just another day. I believe that Italian-Americans should reacquaint ourselves with this tradition, practicing it in our homes, preserving it for future generations.
To all my Italian and Italian-American friends and family, let’s make room in our holiday traditions for both Santa Clause and Befana.
To read more about Italian and Italian-American culture read my book, Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American.