ROMAGNA. IN THE SIGN OF TRADITION / 13 / The Epiphany takes all the holidays away… but that’s why the Befana comes at night with her shoes all broken

Epiphany day, which sanctioned the closure and resolution of the solstitial crisis, the renewal of the year and the celebratory period that started with Christmas night, was in popular culture one of the most important. In addition to elements connoting the day of celebration, a series of significant traditions crowded there. It was also, that between 5 and 6 January, the night in which a mythical “bearer of gifts”, i.e. the Befana, acted. It is on his figure that we dwell, to continue in the next episode to analyze other customs of this anniversary.

An old woman, or rather the oldoften represents in popular mythology the Mother Earth which in winter is impoverished, fruitless, decrepit and humble. An unattractive, almost scary image. This finds in the folk calendar, in addition to the festive period centered on the winter solstice, another moment in which this dynamic is clearly highlighted: that of Segavecchia, which we will discuss in a future episode.

The Befana as she appears in Italian folklore, therefore, is the daughter of various and composite mythical and symbolic ensembles, because the popular culture of our country was formed with the contribution of religiosity and Latin, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic traditions , etc., in turn formed with even more ancient supports. Here it would be impossible to retrace these genealogies; however, to simplify, the Befana represents, in a symbolic-religious synthesis that took place over time, both the winter condition of Mother Earth, both the deceased tutelary gods, and above all an elaboration of characters attributable to these two religious fields. In early January, as soon as the solstitial crisis is over, she he asks devotion and sustenance to men and their rites and something fromas a promise of the time that is renewed, of the vegetation and crops that will return, of the protection of the Ancestors on the life of humans (with the gifts it brings into homes, etc.).


Do not mislead the fact that in various Italian locations the simulacrum of the Befana was or is burned; we are not faced only with an apotropaic rite and symbolic removal of the dead who, at the end of the magical time of the Great Solstitial Feast, must return to their dimension: what is combusted of Old woman it is above all its barren, exhausted, old being (as the germinative power of the earth appears in those days), thus favoring its regeneration. On the other hand, in the empirical experience of cultivator and farmer man, it was also with fire that the land was regenerated and made it fruitful and fertile.

The Befana moves in the dark, and even this exclusively nocturnal manifestation of hers must be ascribed to the characteristics that concern her: on the one hand, being a supernatural character, on the other, representing a condition that preludes the necessary and cyclical renewal, because the night is not only the time of the dead and of the entities that preside over their kingdom, but also that of the Moon and that, above all, in which one awaits the return to light and the rebirth of the day (of time) and of the astral cycle. To reach the houses, coming from an “other” dimension, that of the deceased, she rides a broom in the sky. That is, with the support of an everyday object that has become prodigiously flying, it completes an itinerary that is both similar and opposite to the one that witches and initiates of ancient cults followed, according to their beliefs, flying on sticks or animals, proving how many complex comparisons could be made between the figure of the Befana and other contexts.

To enter houses and leave gifts (in stockings hanging on the edge of the hearth), long before this prerogative was attributed to the Child Jesus, Santa Claus, etc., he comes down the chimneys; that is, he uses the classic way that is typical of supernatural characters, that astral conduit that puts the inside of the house in communication with the immensity of the heavens understood not only as physical space.


It should be added that, by impersonating the Ancestors, one of whose duties is to supervise the life of the living family and above all of the youngest as members of the generation boarderto the Befana as to other “bearers of gifts” is also attributed a pedagogical task. In Sicily it is explicitly the deceased who bring gifts to the children on the night before their celebration on November 2nd; and in this regard Luigi Lombardi Satriani and Mariano Meligrana write: «The dead perform, in this cultural framework, an analogous pedagogical function, in some respects […], to that of the Befana and Santa Claus. The conformity of infantile behavior to current social norms is subject to judgment in terms of “goodness” and “badness” and consequently is subjected to a mechanism of rewards and punishments which, acting as a mythical sanction, defines the past and directs the future” ( LM Lombardi Satriani – M. Meligrana, The bridge of San Giacomo. The ideology of death in Southern peasant society, Palermo 1996, p. 150), so much so that the deceased bearers of gifts also qualify as guarantors of cultural continuity. The coal that children can find in the stocking instead of sweets and gifts, therefore, can represent a good-natured punishment.


A final characteristic of the Befana is that relating to her “invisibility”, understood not so much as a qualitative characteristic, but as an occurrence on the one hand inevitable (children always sleep when she arrives) and on the other obligatory, in the sense that the Befana it must not be seen or encountered, on pain of unpleasant and dangerous consequences. All this refers to the ambiguous relationship with the manifestations of the sacred, the supernatural and the numinous they have to take place during the Great Feast, but which must be lived, by humans, keeping the due distances and taking the necessary precautions in the name of avoidance, taboo and correctness of ritual practices.


ROMAGNA. IN THE SIGN OF TRADITION / 13 / The Epiphany takes all the holidays away… but that’s why the Befana comes at night with her shoes all broken –