Twelve days after Christmas is the Feast of the Epiphany. Though not celebrated outside of the church in the United States, this holiday is marked with special visitors in other parts of the world.
Epiphany also known as Twelfth Day and Three Kings Day marks the end of the Christmas season. In Germany, Epiphany was when we’d receive a visit from the Three Kings and their entourage. Children dressed up as the three wise men and angels bless the house for the year and collected money for local parish charities.
Here in Italy, Epiphany means a visit from La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch.
As the story goes, Befana was an unfriendly old woman, who cared only for sweeping the dust from her floors. All day she swept her little home, inside and outside. One day, she was visited by three mysterious strangers asking for directions to a child. They were the wise men following the star to Bethlehem. Befana did not know how to find the child they were seeking. As Befana sent them on their way, they invited her to join them on their journey. She declined, she had too much sweeping to do.
Later, she regretted her hasty decision and left her house to follow the strangers. She never caught up with them, and she never found the child – Jesus. To this day, on the eve of Epiphany she searches the world leaving small gifts for the children she encounters, hoping that they might be the child she searches for.
Italian children wake on the morning of Epiphany to find their stockings filled with small sweets and toys. Since all children have misbehaved at least once during the long year between visits, they also receive a bit of coal. In this case however, the coal is a sweet sugary treat. Children who’ve really misbehaved over the year might awake to a stocking filled with onions or garlic.
Like many other legends, this one most likely originates from a figure in pagan Pre-Christian cultures. She may have descended from the Sabine goddess of the New Year who was celebrated in ancient Rome, Strenua with an exchange of gifts. Another possibility is from the Alpine Goddess Perchta – who slit the stomachs of those who had misbehaved over the year. (Alpine legends tend to be a bit on the dark side – you’ve heard of Krampus haven’t you?)
Today Befana is a (mostly) harmless visitor, who’ll leave a small treat for deserving children. So why not set out a small glass of wine and a cake – or a sausage (Befana’s preferred treats) and see if you can’t tempt her to stop by.