January 6th: Befana or Epiphany?

Did you know that in Italy many children are used to receiving gifts not only from Santa Claus, but also from a special old lady named Befana? According to the tradition, before January 6th children leave a pair of socks in full view, hoping they will be filled with presents. During the night between the 5th and the 6th, Befana, represented as an old woman flying on a broom, visits every house to put sweets in the socks of good kids and a piece of coal in the socks of the bad ones.

Which Italian child has never sung this carol, at least once?

La Befana vien di notte / Befana comes during the night
Con le scarpe tutte rotte / with her shoes completely destroyed
Con le toppe alla sottana / with some patches on her skirt
Viva Viva la Befana! /Hoorray for Befana!

The origin of this tradition lies probably in some pagan rituals which greeted the end of the previous year together with the beginning of the new one. The old aspect of Befana would be, then, the symbol of past year, while the presents in the socks would represent a wish for the future.

According to another hypothesis, the origin of Befana is connected with the Nativity: the three Wise Men, looking for directions to Bethlehem, knocked at the door of an old lady and asked her to follow them, but she refused. Then, regretting her choice, she decided to go from house to house, bringing presents to children.

The name Befana comes from the word Epifania (Epiphany), which stands for the first public appearance of Jesus in front of the three Wise Men adoring him. For the Christian Church, Epifania, which is celebrated on January 6th as well, is one of the most important feasts of the year and in some countries – in Italy too – it is a public holiday, even if for many people the religious celebration becomes only an excuse to gather with the family and to fill the kids’ socks with every kind of sweets and small presents.

An Italian proverb says: Epifania takes away all the celebrations. Maybe this is why January 6th is still celebrated every year: firstly, for many people the end of the never-ending series of long meals and card games and whatever with all the relatives around is almost a relief; secondly, at least in Italy, it represents the real turning point towards the new year. The party is over, let’s start again!

[Italiano]

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