The Befana’s on her way!

IMG_6475Tonight is Epiphany Eve, the night when Italian children hang up a stocking in preparation for a visit from the Befana. This benevolent Christmas witch flies from house to house on her broomstick coming down the chimney to fill stockings with sweets and treats.

When my three were little they adored 5 January in Italy and insisted on bringing the tradition home. The children would gather in the town square to wait for the arrival of the Befana, excitement growing to fever pitch as they were led into the small theatre. The chanting of Be-fa-na! grew louder and louder until it was almost deafening. Then a huge cheer broke out as the Befana ‘flew’ down onto the stage on her broomstick and the children rushed forward to claim their sweets.

To be honest she did look a bit scary to me with her beaky nose and warty chin and it’s well known she can be strict – children who’ve been bad during the year will receive coal rather than presents in their stocking and children found out of bed when the Befana comes at night might well receive a whack from her broom – but she’s much more loved than feared.

During Mussolini’s government in 1928, the period in which my novel The Secret is set, the Epiphany on 6 January was appropriated by the State and made a national holiday with the aim of unifying Italians around a religious and domestic celebration. Il Duce renamed it Befana Fascista and much publicity surrounded the distribution of gifts to poor Italian children.

Parents were encouraged to ensure that the Fascist Befana brought only Italian-made toys which would help develop children in their roles as ideal Fascist citizens – boys like Gianni in The Secret received guns while girls like Irena and Martina received dolls.

But the Befana tradition goes back a long way and has pagan origins as the old year was swept out ready for the new one. It also fits with the Christian legend of an old woman who gave the three kings a bed for the night on their journey to find the baby Jesus. In the morning they invited her to come with them but she said she had to finish sweeping her house. She set off later to find them but couldn’t so she continues to fly the world on her broomstick looking for the baby and giving presents to all the children she finds.

The Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas festivities and for many Italian children the end of their school holidays. It’s always a shame to have to take down the decorations and lights on Twelfth Night but knowing the Befana will be coming when the house is clear is I’ve found a handy incentive!



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