While most households that celebrate the Christmas season have already taken down the ornaments and thrown away the tree, and, most importantly, begun wondering how they’re going to pay down the credit-card debt, here in Italy the holiday spirit continues, at least for one more day.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, and it’s a national holiday of religious importance around the Bel Paese.
This day marks the occasion when three wise men from the east followed a bright star in the night sky across the desert.
Finally arriving at a manger next to an inn in the little town of Bethlehem, the Magi honored the newborn King, the baby Jesus, with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
That’s the religious significance of the Epiphany.
The folkloric take here in Italy is La Befana, an ancient witch, draped in rags, who flies around on a old-fashioned broom on the eve of the Epiphany bearing gifts of sweets for the nice children and lumps of coal for the naughty ones.
The old witch works hard making her appointed rounds, just like Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) did on Christmas Eve. The only difference between the two gift givers is that Santa got cookies and milk for his efforts.
And La Befana? Well, she could only look forward to being burnt in effigy in town squares all across Italy when the sun went down last night.
Now, I’m a bit too old to believe in La Befana — Santa Claus, that’s another thing — but there was a loud knock on my door early this morning that woke me from a deep sleep. When I finally answered no one was there, but lying on the welcome mat was a small bag with a handwritten note attached to it that read: For the Palladian Traveler.
What do you suppose was inside?
A sweet or a lump?
©The Palladian Traveler
Had to be sweets, Tom. We still have Christmas decorations up, although I’m taking many of them down today in preparation for my trip to Arizona on Thursday to visit my parents. I think I’ll be happy to get away from the frigid temperatures, too. -17F with -44 wind chill today is a bit much!
Say “hello” to La Befana if she circles overhead while you’re en route to Arizoney. 🙂
I hope it was sweets.
TSC — Was I naughty or nice? I’ll leave the answer up in the air, like a cliffhanger. 🙂
I remember kitchen witches that were the rage years ago…La Befana is always hanging around, it appears! Nice post…hope it was a sweet:)
Burnt in effigy, but, like a phoenix, la B rises from the ashes each and every year. Thanks for the note.
Coal or sweets? That’s the burning question! O
Interesting.. My coworker passed around sesame candy this morning in celebration of the Three Kings Day. He explained that traditionally Puerto Ricans celebrate this day in honor of the three wise men, and see it as an even bigger gift-giving occasion than Christmas. Funny how people across oceans and cultures can share these traditions and values.
And this is just a hunch, but I’m thinking you got sweets!
Thanks for your story of the Befana. At home we always celebrated Christmas with gifts. Many yeast ago as I was a small child we visited my grandmother in Italy on Three Kings Day; she told us we should place a dish with polenta on the balcony for the donkey of the Kings (Re Magi) and wait until the next morning. The next day the polenta had gone and we found sweets, oranges and cookies as exchange.
Thanks for the feedback, A&K. Interesting custom on La Befana at your grandmother’s house, and a great memory, too. Buona Befana!
Great post Tom and interesting to hear more about the tradition of La Befana too as I’d never heard of it before I got here! In Venice they celebrate with a Befana regata with blokes dressed up as Befana rowing down the Grand Canal – its quite a sight although only a small regata! I hope you got sweets and not coal! ;o)
I’m an Air Force brat and my mom, bless her, always immersed us into the culture of the place where we lived. When we lived in Vicenza, Italy, we always looked forward to the Befana market and her visit. We were Catholic, so we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany at church. Now I live near Louisiana and King Cakes will soon make their appearance to get ready for Mardi Gras. I love all the cultural overlapping!