There is an absolute glut of holidays and festivals for Italian children in the month around Christmas. Like all good holidays, they are primarily about giving candy. And for this my candy-loving childhood self is so, so jealous.
The celebration of Befana (and the epihpany) today (6 January) is only the final day of a long festive season that starts on 6 December with celebrations for Saint Nicholas. The celebrations across Italy seem quite varied, but here in Trentino the kids get candy. The following week, 12 or 13 December, is the festival of Santa Lucia, and the kids get candy. Befana also brings candy. Lucky kids.
These photos are all of effigies of Begana in Piazza Bra, Verona, 2014 and 2015.
The story of Befana has a few versions. Most involve an old woman who was alive at the time of the birth of the baby Jesus. She encounters the wise men, or doesn’t, and either refuses their invitation to journey to Bethlehem and then later regrets her choice, or sets out herself – mistakenly believing the baby Jesus is her own son.
The story is a little sad as in all versions the woman is alone, her own child or children having died. She decides to visit the baby Jesus and take her own children’s toys. She also takes her broom, in case the new mother needs help with house work.
Can we note here how much more practical woman are in times of childbirth. Help with the house work? Yes please! Toys or other items that baby needs now or in his near future? A great idea.
However, those wise men may have been playing the long game, according to this site frankincense helps relieve arthritis, and the myrrh may have prefigured the death and embalming of Jesus. Helpful. I’d take the gold though.
In most versions of the Befana story, she doesn’t even find the baby Jesus. And for this reason she continues in her search once a year, leaving gifts and candy for Italian children and sweeping their houses with her broomstick.
In Italy Befana fulfils a role usually taken by Father Christmas in the US and UK, leaving those toys and candy in a sock or stocking. Most/all stockings are sold pre-filled by the major sweets companies in the supermarkets.
Were you wondering what was going to happen to that hapless Befana sitting on a pile of flammable sticks? I believe the annual Befana burning only takes place in the Veneto, but I could be wrong. This is in Piazza Bra, the main square in Verona.
The burning symbolises both the end of the Christmas season and the previous year, the old woman representing the old year. The direction the wind blows the smoke is a foreshadowing of the weather the new year will bring.
Because nothing says ‘hey thanks for the candy and cleaning my house’ like burning the witch.