On the night between January 5th and 6th, while everyone is asleep, la Befana creeps into our homes and fills our stockings with little gifts and candy. We find the stockings in the morning without having hung them last night: they appear, no questions asked. What we did leave out for her was a small glass of red wine and some soft breadcrumbs for her to snack on (her bad teeth can’t tolerate crusts). She is not scary-looking although her features are less than attractive, yet kids love her. Unfortunately younger generations are starting to forget how important la Befana really is.
The Befana is not a witch but that’s how she is often portrayed. She’s an ugly, hunched-over old woman in a raggedy scarf who sometimes flies on a broomstick (or rides a donkey) and brings happiness to children. Before Santa dethroned her, overtaking the global commercialization of Christmas, in many parts of Italy it was only la Befana who brought gifts to children on the Twelfth Night that marked the end of the holiday season. December 25th was solemnly celebrated as the birth of Jesus with a big family reunion that involved eating lots of good food and playing bingo before going to Mass, period. There were no gifts at Christmas.
The name “Befana” sounds like the corruption of epifania, Italian for Epiphany, which is the day when on January 6th Christians commemorate the adoration of the Magi. The Befana is a pagan figure linked to Roman folklore but according to a more religious version her story is linked to the Three Wise Men from the Orient.
On their way to Bethlehem to bring the newborn Jesus their precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar got lost on the way momentarily losing sight of the comet. They happened upon an old woman standing in her cozy doorway and asked her for directions. Despite the Magi’s insistence that she follow, the woman peremptorily refused to accompany them. Later, feeling guilty for her harsh dismissal, the old woman prepared a jute sack filled with sweets and gifts for the Babe and set out to catch up to the Three Kings but unsuccessfully. She stopped at every home on the way dispensing her delicious bounty to the children she’d meet hoping that one of them was the newborn Jesus.
From that day every year on the night before January 6th she is said to roam the world giving gifts to children in exchange for forgiveness.
La Befana proverbially loads stockings with a fresh tangerine at the toe and then pieces of unwrapped bubble gum, assorted candies, gianduiotti chocolates, lollipops, chocolate coins for prosperity, a few symbolic small toys and trinkets – like stickers or crayons – and whatever she feels is right for the child in question.
Naughty kids of all ages find their stockings filled only with coal but that rarely happens! Just to keep the tradition alive though every stocking must contain at least one chunk of crumbly, black-colored sugar shaped like a lump of coal.
What was in your stocking this year?
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.