The relics of San Nicola (aka Jolly Ole Saint Nick) are kept in a basilica in Bari, Puglia. Although the modern, red-suited image of Babbo Natale [Santa Claus] is familiar to Italians, he’s not the only magical character Italian children hope to get presents from during the holiday season. Deciding which kids have been cattivi [naughty], which have been buoni [nice], and rewarding them all in turn, is also the task of la Befana.
You’ll know la Befana when you see her: she’s an elderly lady, usually unattractive, who wears a kerchief over her hair, a long skirt, apron, and shawl, and flies above the roofs of houses on a broom. Unlike Babbo Natale, she takes it easy on Christmas and delivers presents (or coal) to children during the night between January 6-7, the Christian Epiphany holiday.
The word Befana is actually a distortion of Epifania [Epiphany], but the origins of this character likely trace back to pre-Christian traditions. January 6th is just a few weeks after the winter solstice, when rural and/or ancient civilizations marked the death and impending rebirth of Madre Natura [Mother Nature]. Pagan figures representing the hardship brought on by the cold seasons, or the old year on its way out, could also have provided the inspiration for la Befana.
There are now tales linking la Befana to the birth of Jesus: this children’s story tells how, some 2000 years ago, an old woman was too busy baking cookies to join the Three Wise Men on their way to see the new baby Jesus. She tried to catch up with them later, using her freshly-baked cookies to thank people she met along the way for their directions and hospitality. As she never got to Bethlehem, she comes out every year on the night of Epifania to give presents to good children.
Other stories claim la Befana is actually the wife of Babbo Natale. Want to decide for yourself who this lady truly is? Catch her in person at la Festa della Befana [Befana festival] in Urbania in early January!
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