The Epiphany is the Roman Catholic day dedicated to the birth of Jesus Christ and is celebrated on January 6. In Italy, and Italian American Neighborhoods, the Epiphany officially marks the end of the Christmas Season.
The word epiphany is rooted in Greek, meaning “appearance” or “manifestation”. According to Roman Catholic tradition, the Epiphany marks and celebrates the birth Jesus Christ. The Three Magi (Wise Men) witnessed a Star in the sky which they felt was an Epiphany (as manifestation of divinity). They traveled, following the star. They were the first to worship at the manger, the first to reference the divinity of the baby in the crib, and the first to bring gifts. The church has said in Eastern Europe Epiphany is sometimes called “The Day of the Three Kings”. The Magi (Casper, Melchoir and Btahasar) saw the night Christ was born, a bright star, followed it to Bethlehem and found there the Christ child and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. January 6 marked their arrival.
In Italy, the Epiphany is also celebrated with the appearance of La Befana, the good witch. “Three spirits of Fate known as Maratega, Rododesa and Befana, spin the lives of all humans, weaving the patterns of each individual’s existence, then cutting the thread of life when the design is completed.”(1) La Befana is often shown wearing a tattered shawl, riding a broom stick. Her sacred symbol is the woven stocking, a symbol of spinning and weaving. On the Eve of the Epiphany (January 5) shoes are placed out and stockings are hung by the fire on the night of the Epiphany Eve. La Befana then rides upon her broom and places sweets and cookies in stockings of good children. Children who are bad may get garlic or coal in their stockings. Sometimes as a warning, children get a candy which looks like coal, but is deliciously deceiving. La Befana is said to also sweep up behind herself (supporting the tradition of being a polite Italian houseguest.)
There are many versions of La Befana’s story. A common version is that the Magi (three Wise Men) stopped at her home and she provided them food and shelter. They told her they were seeking the baby Christ and upon leaving, asked her to join them. To this she told them she had too much housework to do, and closed the door. Some versions end in this manner, others continue to say Befana changed her mind and rode off into the night upon her broomstick looking to catch up with the Magi and baby Jesus Christ. But she never found them and is said to still be looking today, forever adrift riding her broomstick in the heavens. Another version suggests she delivers goodies to children in hopes of finding the baby Jesus.
Prior to Epiphany Eve children, young and old, hang stockings on the hearth. They write their wishes and cast their wishes into the flames. It is said praying to Befana will help remove evil of any kind as well as to invoke good fortune. Burning incense of Frankincense & Cumin on coal dedicated to Befana is also said to invoke good fortune and to remove all evil from one’s home.
The tradition of the good witch Befana filling stockings is a remnant of Italy’s pre Christian religion, also called Stragheria. Children and adults write their wishes on bits of paper they place in the hearth flames to be carried up the chimney. “Connecting fire, lare (ancestral spirits) and Befana. One of Befana’s functions is reaffirming the bond between the family and the ancestors through an exchange of gifts. In ancient times the gifts were representations of one’s ancestors – to whom offerings of food are set near the hearth…The hearth, in which fire is burned and the cooking cauldron is hung, symbolizes the elements of fire and water.” (2) Fire, in particular, represents a recurring theme of cleansing and renewal.
“Rather than setting out milk and cookies, many Italian families will set out chestnuts, fruit, salami, and even a glass of wine for Befana to sip on while making her rounds, depending on regional traditions.”(3) Friends exchange jars with dates and figs filled with honey for good fortune in the coming time.
January begins the winter cycle on the wheel of the year and in the countryside, some towns burn an effigy of Befana during New Year’s Celebrations.
It is said Befana’s image of an old crone is akin to the decaying of winter, until the cycle of spring, where Befana is reborn as Fana, the woodland goddess of spring. Some associate her as Strenia, the Roman goddess of the New Year, from the 13C. Epiphany ushers in the death of the old season and marks the waiting of birth of the new season. Just like many of my farmer and herbalist friends are busy now looking for seed they will germinate to grow new plants in spring.
Treats of sweets and Biscotti (cookies) left by stockings or in stockings is still part of active tradition today. In the North, Befanini cookies are included in the festivities and in the south dried fruits and nut filled desserts are common. Click here for Kitchen Wisdom Gluten Free Plums Ripieni, Plums stuffed with walnuts and dark chocolate, so flavorful and delicious you will see how well they pair with red wine and the Epiphany.
1. Grimassi, Raven; Italian Witchraft: The Old Religion of Southern Europe; page 291; Llewellyn Press; 2000
3. National Italian American Foundation (Pensieri Italo-Americani Blog); Italy’s Christmas Witch: The Befana Tradition; https://niafblog.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/italys-christmas-witch-the-befana-tradition/
- CaraBefana.it; The True Story of the Epiphany; http://carabefana.it/pages/storia_befana.html
- Catholic Online; Catholic Online Encyclopedia; The Epiphany: What is it and how do people around the world celebrate?; http://www.catholic.org/news/hf/faith/story.php?id=66407
- Grimassi, Raven; Italian Witchraft: The Old Religion of Southern Europe; Llewellyn Press; 2000
- National Italian American Foundation (Pensieri Italo-Americani Blog); Italy’s Christmas Witch: The Befana Tradition; https://niafblog.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/italys-christmas-witch-the-befana-tradition/
“Befana & the Epiphany” by Liz Conforti, Kitchen Wisdom Gluten Free(c)2017
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