Is the Befana or the Epiphany coming? Is there an old woman traveling or are the Magi finally entering the scene? The feast of January 6th is a matter of words and characters. If you want to make an etymological question, Epiphany and Befana have the same origin. Befana is a popular variation of the Greek term Epiphany which means apparition. If we want to talk about characters then we must say that they are all there: the Magi and the old woman who also has different names and functions in the world.
The day of the Epiphany, in the Catholic tradition, is the one in which the Magi (only the Gospel of Matthew names them and does not say that they are Kings and not even magicians and not even three) arrive at the Child Jesus following the comet which is Kite by Halley. Epiphany is an apparition, a manifestation of the divinity of Christ, which was also in his baptism, but remained in tradition only in the adoration of the Magi. The gifts they bring are gold, frankincense and myrrh and have been transformed in the Italian folk tradition into fruit, sweets and toys.
Until the fifteenth century the Magi were depicted without any difference in color and ethnicity. One of the dark-skinned kings appears for the first time in a painting by Mantegna of 1464. It was only in the Renaissance that the custom of identifying the three continents known until then was widespread in the Magi. Three is also the perfect number. It is they who parade in Florence in the historical procession and who in Milan go from the Duomo to Sant’Eustorgio.
Epiphany and Befana, as mentioned, have the same origin. Befana is a popular variation of the Greek term Epiphany. The Befana is also the personification of the Epiphany: the old, very ugly but beneficial, which at night, going down the chimney, leaves good gifts and sweets in the children’s socks, coal for the bad guys.
Says theAccademia della Crusca that “from the religious dominion (manifestation of Jesus to the Magi), epiphany has expanded its meaning in the cultured language, to the point of assuming that, entirely secular, of manifestation, appearance, especially if rare, unexpected, of something”.
In Russia the Befana is called Babuschka and bring gifts like us, accompanying Father Frost. Another feature of the Befana is that it is the last of the holidays, the one that closes the period and all the other takes away and that, traditionally, identifies the day in which the Christmas tree and the crib are disposed of.
The Befana-Mother Nature of the ancients is at the same time death and life, evil and good, darkness and light, an old and ugly but basically good woman: a figure that represents the conclusion of one cycle and the beginning of another, which every culture has celebrated since the dawn of time with rites, customs, good luck amulets.
MAGI AND BEFANA
A legend says that the Magi knocked on the old woman’s door to ask for directions to Bethlehem. He refused to go with them, but he repented and decided to join them. Not finding them he knocked on every door leaving a gift hoping that the child of the house was Jesus.
The sock is a perfect container and an indispensable garment. A legend says that Numa Pompilius, the second of the seven kings of Rome, used to hang a stocking in a cave during the time of the winter solstice. He was to receive gifts from a nymph.
FIRE AND OTHER TRADITIONS
There are not only the gifts and the old lady with the broom by the fireplace. Puppets with the image of the old woman are burned in different parts of Italy. It would be a survival of pre-Christian myths, Scholars see in the burning of the puppet (the Old Woman, the Befana, the Witch), which persists all over Europe, the periodic survival of evil spirits, tracing the myth of the Befana back to pre-Christian magical traditions. In Verona it is called Brusa la vecia: on January 6 in Piazza Bra a huge Befana of rags and wood is set on fire.
There are dozens of traditions and rites in Italy and around the world. In Montescaglioso, in Basilicata, for example, the night of the eve of the Epiphany is the night of the Cucibocca. In groups of three some characters wander through the alleys and streets in the evening with their faces covered by beards and hats. They have dark robes and cloaks and chains on their feet. They ask for offerings in kind and carry in one hand a basket with an oil lamp and in the other a huge needle from which a long thread hangs. With the needle and the thread they try to sew the mouth of the curious children who thus flee and go to sleep leaving room for the Befana in the night.
Twelve nights pass between Christmas and Epiphany. The ancient Romans thought that female deities led by Diana flew over the fields to make them fertile. These twelve nights were always those in which he appeared Perchta, the Germanic mistress of beasts, known further north as Holda. It appears beautiful and white as snow or with the elderly appearance of the Befana. In Great Britain, the night of the Epiphany is the twelfth Shakespearean night, marks the end of the Christmas period and is the night when the spirits go out to make jokes. In short, always pagan rites that have somehow passed to the Christian tradition.
In Barcelona, the day of gifts is January 6 with the arrival of The Kings, the three wise men, with floats parading around the city (not in 2021 due to Covid). The children write the letter and leave a glass of water for the camels, food and a shoe where the gift will be placed. In France, the Epiphany tradition has remained with a dessert, the galette des rois, cake of the kings made with puff pastry and almond cream that contains a bean or a plaster or ceramic figurine. Whoever finds it is the king or queen of the day.