La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
con le toppe alla sottana
Viva, viva la Befana! *
No, I haven’t lost the plot. With the many e-mails I received a couple of days ago wishing me “Happy Befana” I was reminded that, as usual, Italian Christmas holidays are stretched to January 6, the day the Epiphany is celebrated much to the delight of children.
The Epiphany is actually a religious holiday having to do with the Three Kings or Magi visiting new-born baby Jesus or his baptismal or his official incarnation, depending on what Bible you read and which branch of Christianity one believes in. And I, lapsed Catholic that I am, had to look all this up because in my world and the world of most people I know Befana is a very old, hunchbacked lady flying on a broom, a sack over her back, coming down the chimney on January 6 to deliver toys to children who have been good and lumps of coal to the bad ones. This spun a whole coal cottage industry – at this time of the year, it’s easy to find sugar coal which is a double whammy for teeth: not only does it induce cavities but makes your teeth black for a few hours.
Let’s make a distinction – Befana is not a witch but just an excuse for Italian kids to get more toys than necessary, to stay out of school for a few days longer and to stretch skiing vacation to the maximum. Italians know how to live in style – none of the Monday bank holiday business. Certain days get celebrated on whatever calendar day they fall on and one will always find a way to “bridge” vacation days. Oh, do I miss the practice!
While still bitten by the Befana bug and doing some research on various websites I came across a couple of tidbits I found interesting. According to folklore the Three Kings, laden with gifts for baby Jesus, apparently got lost (didn’t they have a shooting star leading the way?!) and asked an old woman for direction (bad mistake). She wouldn’t walk with them (and why blame her) and, probably terrified, refused to leave her house. After a while, she had second thoughts (she must have thought about all that gold and myrrh) and went looking for the men and their camels, carrying a basket of cakes (yep, she was a pastry chef). Unable to find them, she stopped at every house leaving cakes whenever she encountered a new-born baby, hoping he was Jesus (she had heard of that Paradise theory and was taking no chances).
The second interesting fact I uncovered is that the tradition of giving gifts to children was popularized during the Fascist era. Yet more evidence that good old Benito had to buy his way into people’s hearts and started when they were very young.
And with that, Happy Belated Befana!
* Befana comes at night
Holes in her shoes
Patches on her skirt
Long live Befana
(old nursery rhyme)