Throughout my life, until I came to Barga in Tuscany, New Year’s Day marked the end of the Christmas season; all bar the clearing up that is.
January 6th (Epiphany) was merely the traditional day to take down all the decorations and, by then, life had already returned to its routines. However, in Italy, Epiphany is a public holiday, and the Christmas season does not end until after that date. A Tuscan proverb says “So with the Epiphany, the holiday comes to an end.”
In the United Kingdom, and many other countries, children wait excitedly, for Father Christmas to come on the night of Christmas Eve. In Italy, too, but here children also have another exciting wait for a visitor -“La Befana”, who comes on the night of January 5th. This tradition in Italy, is far more ancient than Father Christmas, whose appearance and popularity has grown only since WW2.
The legend of “La Befana” takes many forms, and its origins could date back to the Sabine/Roman goddess Strina or Strenia. One Christian version is that she was an ever-busy and extremely hard-working old lady, whose clean house and baking skills were renowned. The Magi (The Three Wise Men) visited and stayed with her while following the star in their search for the infant Jesus.
As the Magi prepared to take their leave, they invited “La Befana” to go with them, but she, alas, was far too busy. Later, she regretted her decision and set off to try to find them. Sadly, she failed to do so and, to this day, she sets off on her broomstick, on the night of January 5th to continue her search. She takes gifts to every child, just in case!
Her gifts vary but, by tradition, good children receive fruits, sweets and other presents, while naughty children get a lump of coal or onions, or something equally undesirable. Nowadays, even good children might get some black sweets that look like lumps of coal – to keep them on their mettle?
“La Befana” is often portrayed as an old woman riding on a broomstick. She wears a black shawl and her face is covered with soot from going up and down chimneys; perhaps Father Christmas should share his secret as to how he stays so clean! It is also said that she will sweep the floor before she leaves a house, which could be interpreted as sweeping away all the problems of the year.
Traditionally people leave out a small glass of wine and some food for “La Befana”; does that ring any bells?
The tradition is still strong in Italy, with shops selling stockings (mainly red), black sweets, “La Befana” figures and toys and special biscuits etc. There are parties, public and private, and many people go from house to house celebrating the bonds of family and friendship.
Many towns and cities have big celebrations on the evening of January 5th (or even the 6th), but I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere other than in Barga. For me, that evening has become one of the highlights of the calendar – a real “must do” event.
By Jenny M Want
For Jenny, living in Italy is a dream come true. A retired teacher, she now lives in scenic Barga in Tuscany with her partner David.
Immersed in Barga life, Jenny passes her time writing, researching, observing and learning.
Jenny has written a fun book for children set in Barga, Tuscany – The Bat of Barga.