On January 5, also known as Epiphany Eve, an old woman named Befana delivers gifts to children all throughout Italy. She visits all children and either fills their shoes with candy and presents or with a lump of coal. The good children get the candy and the bad ones get the coal.
These days, dark candy will often substitute for the coal. In fact, almost every child gets some dark caramel candy, since it is assumed that all children have been bad at least once throughout the year. This tradition is actually very similar to the German tradition of St. Nick. He also fills children’s shoes, but he does it on the night of December 5.
It is believed that the name Befana actually comes from the feast of the Epiphany which takes place on January 6. Befana is the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epiphany.”
When Befana comes around to visit all the children and leave them their candy or their coal, she is also said to sweep the floor before she leaves. This sweeping symbolizes the sweeping away of the problems of the year. In return, the family leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with some food.
The popular image of Befana is of an old lady riding a broomstick. She wears a black shawl and is covered in soot, because she enters the houses through the chimneys (sound familiar?). Despite her ominous appearance, she is usually depicted as smiling and carrying a sack full of goodies. She is often referred to as a Christmas which, but she is obviously a good witch.
Every year in Italy, a big festival is held to celebrate Befana. She has become a national icon. 30 to 50 thousand people attend these festivals and hundreds of them dress up as Befana and swing from the main tower. They also greet the children and entertain them with juggling and dancing.
The tradition of Befana has also made it overseas wherever an Italian community exists. For example, in Toronto there is a Befana choir that sings in the Kensington market festival of lights parade every winter solstice. People dress up in a Befana costume and sing love songs to the sun to encourage it to return. The dressed up witches sing in various keys, most of them wrong, to the delight of the crowd. They also cackle and play annoying accordion music. And, of course, they give candy to the children.
Every country has its own unique Christmas traditions and Italy is no exception. There are a lot of similarities between these traditions. Befana in Italy basically performs the same functions as St. Nick and Krampus do in southern Germany. The main difference is that she takes care of both the naughty and the nice children, whereas in Germany, Krampus takes care of the bad children, while St. Nick rewards the good ones. These differences might be slight, but they’re what make the various Christmas traditions so interesting.