I celebrated Christmas in Genoa, Italy, a few years ago while on university exchange. The city absolutely shone during the holiday period and I relished walking the streets, bag of roasted chestnuts in hand, admiring the lights and decorations strung up everywhere, and taking in the buzzing markets.
I first saw her on the 28th of December. A Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) figure, which had decorated the window of my local pasticceria for the last few weeks, had been replaced by a giant, ugly witch on a broomstick. As I wandered, this strange (and, quite frankly, scary) old witch seemed to appear everywhere.
As we begin to wind down from the Christmas feasting period, the Italians, in true Italian style, are preparing for another one, La Befana. This Italian holiday gets its name from the old, wrinkly woman on a broomstick. Despite appearances, the woman is not a witch, but a nice old lady who delivers presents (and occasionally a hunk of coal) to children on the eve of the Epiphany (January 6).
Although the Epiphany is celebrated throughout the Christian world, the gift-giving figure of La Befana is solely an Italian tradition. The most popular tale of how this mythical figure came about is that La Befana was an old woman who was approached by the Three Wise Men to join them in visiting baby Jesus. She declined as she had plenty of housework (hence the broom), but soon regretted her decision and started out after them with a bundle of presents for the new arrival. She never found baby Jesus and has been delivering presents to children ever since.
The word befana is thought to be derived from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word epiphania, or epiphany. The Epiphany is a Christian feast day, celebrating the revelation that the Son of God – Jesus Christ – was a human being. This was originally celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church with an eight-day feast, yet, over time, has been condensed to a single event on January 6.
La Befana is celebrated throughout Italy. The Regata delle Befane is held in Venice, (where men dressed as the Befana race boats in the Grand Canal), and a four-day festival is held in Urbania, a town in the Le Marche region, where children can meet La Befana and visit her house. In the Vatican City, a traditional procession of people in medieval costumes takes place, and parades, markets and performances pop up all over the country. Above all, however, families gather for a celebratory feast.
Armando Percuoco, chef and owner of Sydney restaurant Buon Ricordo, celebrated La Befana throughout his childhood in Naples, where he grew up. “La Befana is for the children,” he says, “and la Befana was bringing presents to children long before Santa Claus.” He recalls waking on the morning of January 6 and finding socks full of presents at the end of his bed, which la Befana had delivered during the night. The tradition of gift giving on the day of the Epiphany is so strong, he says, that toy stores stay open until midnight on the eve of the holiday. Interestingly, this is not the case for Christmas Eve.
While the menu for the day varies from family to family, Percuoco says there is one staple: sweets. These days, pasticcerias all over the country sell carbone – fake coal made from sugar and coloured with black food dye. For Percuoco, his Neopolitan origins see La Befana celebrated with dishes such as pastiera and struffoli. People in Northern Italy, he says, would be likely to eat panforte (pictured) and panettone.
“I’m happy that you are writing about the Befana,” says Percuoco, “because it is being celebrated less these days.” Santa Claus has been slowly but decidedly pushing the endearing gift-wielding witch into the background. But, for now at least, many families continue to gather on the eve of the Epiphany to share a meal, while children with black-stained mouths play with the toys La Befana left at the foot of their beds.