Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What is the “La Befana” Public Holiday?

What is the “La Befana” Public Holiday?
We all know about Christmas and New Year, but if you’ve ever been in Italy during the first week of January, then you may have got confused by the presence of another public holiday on the 6th of January called the Befana. So what’s it all about?

Well, the gift bearer in Italy isn’t Santa but a hook-nosed old woman called La Befana. She flies through the air on her broomstick and like Santa, comes down the chimney. She brings with her a sack full of toys and treats for well-behaved children but leaves lumps of coal, onions or garlic for the naughty ones. Families leave her a small glass of wine and a tasty local delicacy as a thank you for her gifts.  If she has the time, she might use her broom to sweep the floor, an act of kindness often pointed out to kids as proof that she has visited.

The origin of Befana is not clear. According to scholars she is derived, not from Christianity, but from the ancient Roman goddess Strina. In the her book ‘Domestic Life in Palestine’, Mary E. Rogers noted: "But an 'Essay on the Fine Arts,' by E. L. Tarbuck, led me to believe that this custom is a relic of pagan worship, and that the word "Bastrina" refers to the offerings which used to be made to the goddess Strenia. We could hardly expect that the pagans who embraced Christianity could altogether abandon their former creeds and customs. Macaulay says, "Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity; the rites of the Pantheon passed into her 'worship, and the subtilties of the Academy into her creed.' Many pagan customs were adopted by the new Church. T. Hope, in his 'Essay on Architecture,' says: 'The Saturnalia were continued in the Carnival, and the festival with offerings to the goddess Strenia was continued in that of the New Year…'" – page 408.

On the other hand, there are two folk legends explaining the origin of the Befana. The most popular depicts her as a house-proud spinster living on the road to Bethlehem at the time when Jesus was born. The three wise men call on her to ask for shelter and invite her to go along with them in search of the newly-born Christ. She accepts but, unable to leave until she has tidied the house, she gets left behind.  By the time she takes the road, bearing toys for Jesus, it is too late. The magi, and the Holy Family, have left Bethlehem. La Befana is still searching for Jesus to this very day,  giving presents to every child she meets in case they are the Christ.

A second story tells of a mother mourning a long-dead baby.  The magi call on her but she turns them away.  At night, she sees the star of Bethlehem shining in the sky and has a change of heart. She follows it and finds the new-born Jesus in a stable. Delighted by her gifts of bread and woollen blanket, the Christ-child makes her the mother of all Italian children and entrusts her with the task of handing out Christmas gifts every year.

The tradition of La Befana is still strong in Italy today. She appears in parades, at markets and prize-giving ceremonies. Piazza Navona in Rome hosts an annual market selling toys and sweets shaped like lumps of charcoal. Children in Rome are told that the Befana takes off from one of the windows in the piazza on the 6th of January. The old woman who started out as a humble housekeeper on the outskirts of Bethlehem today enjoys real celebrity status.

For more information on Befana see  - Luxury Italian Cashmere, Bedding & Bath Linen

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