In Italy in early times, the crone aspect of the Goddess was celebrated with the tradition of La Befana, a beneficent strega*. She is one of the three goddesses of fate in Tuscan lore: Rododesa, Marantega, and Befana. On the night of January 6, Befana leaves presents in children’s stockings hung upon the earth. The stockings hung for Befana on the hearth are derived from ancient offerings to the Goddess of Fate and Time. Such goddesses have always been associated with weaving, the loom, the spindle, and distaff (of which stockings are totems). Befana arrives on a flying goat (more modern depictions have her flying broom). This is symbolic of her connection to the plant and animal world, making her a woodland goddess as well as a goddess of annual renewal.
Befana is also connected to ancestral spirits as a mythical ancestress who returns yearly. Through her timeless visits to the hearth, her function is that of reaffirming the bond between the family and their ancestors through an exchange of gifts. The children receive small gifts from La Befana, which in ancient times were representations of ones ancestors, to whom offerings of food were set near the hearth (now milk and cookies for Babbo Natale).
In Tuscany and some other regions still today, Befana appears in street processions as a masked figure guiding a band of postulants who receive offers from families, who, in turn, receive the gift of prosperity from Befana’s blessings.
The hearth, in which fire is burned and the cooking cauldron is hung, symbolizes the elements of fire and water. The water prepared on the eve of the La Befana has a sacred and protective value and is used in critical moments of family life. In Abruzzo it is called “Water of the Boffe”. Fire, in particular, represents a recurring theme of cleansing and renewal. (The Epiphany holiday now also observed on the 6th by the church includes purification rites and blessings with “holy” water).
In Italian folk tradition, an effigy of Befana is constructed of wood, depicting her holding a spindle and distaff. The effigy is stuffed with grapes, dried figs, chestnuts, pears, apples, carobs, sapa, and cotnognata. Later it is broke or sawed open and goodies dispensed to town folk, followed by the burning of the Befana effigy on a pyre. (and so returning the ancestral spirit to their realm the through the symbolism of the ascending fire). The pyre is six to seven meters high and conical. Chopped wood on bottom stack, brambles, horse chestnuts, and finally straw.
Pyromancy is performed by the sparks exploding from the chestnuts as the pyre burns. The burning of the Befana effigy is also designed to return the old life to the new, the decay of winter feeding the soil of spring. The figure of Befana a crone is merely the reflection of her having been aged by winter. Befana is born again, life renewed and she returns as Fana, woodland goddess of spring.
(is very difficult to explain a strega, a strega is translated as witch. witch btw means wise one. strega are just country/rural women who practice the ways and traditions of their specific region, in accordance with the ways of nature. strega do not believe in devil)
La Befana – The Celebration of Epiphany
Catholic Christians usurped the ancient pagan feast. The Epiphany was obviously pagan in origin. Only later was the day associated with the life of Christ.
“Epifania,” the proper Italian word for epiphany. While the Western Christian Church celebrates December 25th,the Eastern Christian Church to this day recognizes January 6 as the celebration of the nativity.
Christmas holidays ending on 6th January,is quite fitting for a gift- giver since the Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi (or 3 Wise Men)to the infant Jesus,with their gifts of gold,frankincense,and myrrh.The Magi were named Balthazar, Melchior,and Gaspar. According to legend the three men during their journey stopped and asked an old woman for food and shelter. She fed them and let them take rest, but when they invited her to join them on their journey to find the infant, she refused and they continued on their way. A few hours the woman had a change of heart but the Magi were long gone.
Befana bundled up all of the toys she had from her own child who had died in youth. She went out on her own searching for the baby Jesus. Every year since, she bundles her toys and brings gifts to the children in hope of one day finding the infant Jesus.
Tradition depicts La Befana as a kindly old lady with a stereotypical nose with a big red mole on top of it and a pointy chin. Wearing an old coat mended with carefully with colorful patches and tattered shoes,she flies around on a “broom” and carries her black bag filled with sweets and presents for the children. She places her gifts inside the children ’s stockings hung with care,the night before.The buoni ragazzi (good kids)are very happy to find their stocking filled with presents.They have been busy writing letters to La Befana, la buona strega (good witch).But for the children who have not been good,there will not be presents, but a lump of coal (carbone dolce).
On Christmas eve night, after the inception of Catholic church in Italy, Italians practiced the “Feast of Seven Fishes”, a meatless dinner. After dinner, the children would share letters written to parents and family members saying why they were cared for … the children would also throw into the hearth on scraps of paper, notes to Befana asking for gifts and blessings. Taking their hopes up the chimney to Befana.
Now of course is commercialized but there are many parts of Italy that still celebrate La Befana …
Buon Festa della Befana! )O(