HISTORY OF THE BEFANA: STOCKINGS, SWEETS AND COAL
Life, death and miracles are probably known of our beloved Santa Claus (although we are always talking about a fictional character), but what can we say about the story of the Befana ? First of all, is he really his wife or is it a mystification? The Epiphany is in fact a rather strange party, placed as it is at the end of the Christmas holidays and therefore not at all central, and basically celebrated only when you are small or in the presence of children, to whom you give sweets (so, much for enrich dentists).
Read also: Greetings for the Epiphany: wishes for the Epiphany
HISTORY OF THE EPIPHANY: PAGAN ORIGINS
We start from the assumption that the old woman is a typically Italian figure, which in the rest of the world has almost no equivalent. The best-known image is that of the elderly woman who, riding a flying broom, visits the houses where the children live during the night between 5 and 6 January, practically heralding the Epiphany (and the Christian story of the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem, laden with gifts for Jesus).
The Befana, a bit like Santa should do, is able to distinguish between the children who were good and those who behaved badly during the year: at first she brings various sweets, but also toys, and the others of the coal or some Italian region of garlic. In any case, the gifts are deposited in special socks which are left hanging near the window.
As usually happens for this type of recurrence, also in this case the origin of the myth is pagan, agricultural-rural, and spread in Italy as a consequence of the spread of Celtic cults: basically a ritual made to propitiate good harvests, the myth it is then adopted by the Romans, who make it coincide with the twelfth night following the winter solstice.
In this way we celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth of nature, which is represented by some female figures flying over the plowed fields: perhaps it is Diana or perhaps minor deities such as Abundia or Satia, both linked to the idea of fertility, abundance and multiplication of goods.
WHY DO THE BEFANA BRING COAL? CHRISTIAN ORIGINS
We come to Christianity, which first condemns the ritual, and then absorbs it: the figure of the flying woman is obviously paired with that of the witch, and it is no coincidence that the element of the broom is added, associated with witchcraft.
At this point the presence of coal is easy to explain: on the one hand the witches were sent to the stake, while on the other, symbolizing the old year just ended, the Befana is superimposed on the puppets, in some cases full of sweets, which they were burned to ensure a happy new year.
This is how Italian Catholicism took over this female presence, with a double positive and negative value, which could dispense greedy gifts like threatening ash.
HISTORY OF THE BEFANA: SOCKS WITH SWEETS
There is also a Christianized legend of the myth of the Epiphany associated with the Three Wise Men: the old woman would have been a woman to whom the three travelers ask for information to find Jesus. However, the woman refuses to accompany them on their journey, only to regret it.
Leaving in a hurry with a basket of sweets in tow, when she realizes that by now she cannot trace the Magi to remedy her mistake, the woman starts to distribute sweets in the houses on her way, hoping that one of the crossed children is really Jesus.
To conclude, the Befana's affiliation with Santa Claus is rather spurious: sometimes the two are shown in conflict, other times she helps him in the Christmas preparations, but in essence it is a rather recent and not very lucky myth.
EPIPHANY: DIY SOCKS AND CURIOSITIES
Read how to make nice personalized socks and don't miss all the curiosities about the Epiphany and the traditions of this party:
- Stocking of the Befana do it yourself, 5 low cost and original ideas
- Befana in English: because the translation does not exist
- Epiphany: meaning of January 6 and the gifts of the Three Kings