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La Storia della Befana e Epifania

Posted: Wed Jan 05, 2005 10:27 pm
by Roby
In Italy there remains, a legend or tradition involving a Witch named Befana. On the night of January 6th (Twelfth Night or the Eve of the Epiphany or Little Christmas), Befana leaves presents in children's stockings hung upon the hearth or in their shoes placed at the door, a tradition very much like Santa Claus associated with Christmas in America. The children write notes and hide them up the chimney for La Befana. The notes or offerings are generally a list of toys or other items that they want La Befana to bring. The whole town is in a state of great anticipation the day La Befana is due. Befana fills up stockings with nuts and fruit and brings presents for all the good children, and a lump of coal for the not-so-good children. In Italy today some candy shops sell 'carbone' or black rock candy that actually looks like pieces of coal. After her arrival, many parties take place, and people move around from house to house visiting friends and relatives.

The Epiphany holiday observed on January 6th includes purifying rites, and benedictions with water. The water prepared on the eve of Epiphany has a sacred and warding-off-evil-spirits value and is used in critical moments of family life. Through Befana's timeless visits to the family hearth, her function is that of reaffirming the bond between the family and the ancestors through an exchange of gifts.

Befana appears in street processions as a masked figure with her consort Befano. Guiding a band of followers who receive offers from families, they receive the gift of prosperity from Befana's blessings. Music fills the streets and people place Befana dolls in their windows, welcoming her to their house. At the end of the Befana celebration, the Befana dolls are burned in effigy. This is done to burn the bad things of the old year and to wish the best things to the new coming.

The Feast of the Epiphany, is the Christian celebration in remembrance of the Magi's visit to the Christ-child. There is also the legend that Befana was invited by the Magi or Wise Men to accompany them in their quest for the baby Jesus. But she refused as she was so busy with household tasks. She intended to see them when they passed by again. However, since the Magi returned home by a different route, she missed them. Another tale says that she promised to catch up with them when she was finished cleaning. By the time she finished, however, the Wise Men were long gone. She frantically began running after them with gifts for the Christ-child, still carrying her broom. Magically, she began to fly on her broom but could not find the Wise Men or the Christ-child.

This is a small chant used by some Italian childern:

La Befana comes at night
In tattered shoes
Dressed in the Roman style
Long live la Befana!!

She brings cinders and coals
To the naughty children
To the good children
She brings sweets and lots of gifts.

Here is an incantation from "Etruscan Magic & Occult Remedies", by Charles Godfrey Leland, to drive away bad luck. It may well be that some Italian regions inherited their folk religion from their ancestors who lived in the same place, the Etruscans.

Take frankincense, both of the best and the inferior kind, also cummin seed. Have ready a seperate scaldino (spirit bowl), which is kept only for this purpose. And should it happen that affairs of any kind go badly, fill the scaldino with glowing coals, then take three pinches of best incense and three of the second quality, and put them all 'in fila' (in a row) on the threshold of the door. Then take the rest of your incense and the cummin, and put it into the burning coal, and carry it about, and wave it over the bed and in every corner, saying:

In nome del cielo!
Delle stelle e della luna!
Mi levo questo mal d'occhio
Per mia maggior' fortuna!
Befana! Befana! Befana!
Che mi date mal d'occhio maladetta sia
Befana! Befana! Befana!

Chi mi ha dato il maldocchio
Me lo porta via
E maggior fortuna Mi venga in casa mia!


(translation)
In the name of heaven
And of the stars and moon,
May this trouble change
To better fortune soon!
Befana! Befana! Befana!
Should this deed be thine;
Befana! Befana! Befana!
Take it away, bring luck, I pray,
Into this house of mine!


Then when all is consumed in the scaldino, light the little piles of incense on the threshold of the door, and go over it three times, and spit behind you over your shoulder three times, and say:

Befana! Befana! Befana!
Chi me ha dato maldocchio!
Me lo porta via
(translation)
Befana! Befana!
Befana! I say,
Since thou gavest this bad luck,
Carry it away!


Then pass thrice backwards and forwards before the fire, spitting over the left shoulder, and repeating the same incantation.

In America the Christians use the title Santa Claus; here are a few of the names (male and female) used in other countries: Weihnachtsmann in Germany; Kris Kringle from southern Germany; Pere Noel in France; Papa Noel in many Spanish speaking countries; Sinter Claus, Sinterklaas, or Sinte Klaas in Holland and the Netherlands; Babouschka in Russia; Father Christmas in England; Julemanden in Denmark; Joulupukki in Finland; Ameraterasu in Japan; Svalty Mikulas in Czechoslovakia; Santa Lucia in Sweeden.

No matter what name 'he or she' is called by, they ALL symbolize family!!!! This time of year is filled with singing, rich foods, family, gifts, and helping others in need. It is a time to open our hearts and to share our peace and hope and magic.

Roby

Posted: Thu Jan 06, 2005 9:37 pm
by Mindy
Roby,

Thank you so much for posting this wonderful description! La Befana visited us last night, and left candy and gifts in our kids socks - not a special stocking, mind you - their regular socks, that we hung on clothespins in the kitchen. They were so excited!

I was interested to learn that in Italy, La Befana is kind of the equivalent of our Santa Claus. Babbo Natale still visits children on Christmas eve with gifts, but he just leaves the gifts outside the front door, and children open them on Christmas Eve, not Christmas morning under the tree the way we do in the U.S.

La Befana, while she is a scary-looking witch, is met with much anticipation and joy by children in Italy. A friend of the family, Nelly (a delightful woman who is close friends with my mother-in-law and her sister - and by the way, you pronounce her name Nel - LEE') brought Elisa a Befana doll that she has been playing with all day.

Anyway - thanks, again Roby for sharing the history behind the tradition! :D

--Mindy