The new year is already into full swing, and December, with all its festivities, seems light years away. New Years Eve was celebrated with an explosion of dinners, dancing, and fireworks as in many other places, and for most of the party-goers, the 1st of January was a chance to sleep it all off and rest before getting back to the daily grind. And in Italy, daily grind it was, at least until the 6th of January, which is when everything comes to a halt once again for the “Epifania” – epiphany.
Epiphany, a word which originates from Greek, and means “vision”, manifestation” refers to the appearance to humanity of baby Jesus, represented by the visit of the three kings in western christianity, and by the baptism in eastern creed. But it is interesting to see how yet again, religious belief blends with pagan customs, since this national holiday – which unfortunately fell on a saturday this year, already a non-working day for millions of people (but not all!) – is commonly called “Festa della Befana” here. The “Befana” is an imaginary ugly old woman who whizzes around the sky on the night between the 5th and 6th of December on a broomstick, filling stockings with small gifts for well-behaved children, and coal or garlic for all the others. Much leg-pulling goes on during this time, since all women are jokingly tagged as “befane”, and we all get asked whether we have checked the gas, oil and brakes on our brooms before setting out for the night sky! And the following day, our men politely ask whether we had a good flight, and if we landed safely! All naturally taken with a smile, because we women actually enjoy wishing each other well for the busy night, and making suggestions as to the newest technology used in these cases – such as electric vacuum cleaners instead of brooms…!
But what does this ugly old hag have to do with christian epiphany, one might ask? The term “befana” originally derived from the greek word “bifania”, which actually means epiphany. The concept has pagan origins, but there appear to be more than one school of thought surrounding the story; one largely accepted interpretation in central and north Europe is that the “lady” is based on a Celtic figure called Perchta, who was a female personification of winter nature. She was represented as a hunchbacked old woman with an enormous hooked nose, white, unkempt hair and very big feet in worn-out, broken shoes. She was dressed in rags, and would fly over farmers’ fields during the night, favouring fertility for the new year. She was celebrated in the twelve days following christmas, the peak of the festivity coinciding with epiphany. Tradition demands that the woman be old, because she represents the end of a cycle; in fact, after the winter solstice, the old ends and the new begins, the transition from never-ending cold nights to longer days and more sunlight takes place.
From the IV century, the Church Of Rome of that time began to condemn all pagan rites and beliefs, defining them as the outcome of satanic influence. These accusations led to many different personifications, which in the early medieval era eventually resulted in the current figure, stripped of fairy-tale or pagan connotations, benevolent and not malicious, although, thanks to halloween, the befana is often mistakenly associated to witches. In reality, she has nothing to do with witches, but is a sweet little old lady represented on a flying broomstick, because brooms are an antique symbol of purification of houses – and of the soul – in view of the forthcoming birth of a new season.
Condemned therefore by the Church, the antique female pagan figure was gradually accepted by Catholicism, as a kind of dual between good and the evil. In current day, the befana is celebrated all over Italy in many different ways; sometimes a man dressed up as a ragged woman is slowly lowered from a bell tower in the village square, holding firmly on to his/her broomstick. In other places, tradition has little old cronies distributing sweets and chocolates to the children passing by. But once the befana has flown away on her broom, it’s a sure sign that all festivities have come to an end, in fact there is an Italian saying that goes “Epifania – tutte le feste si porta via”….epiphany takes all the festivities away with it.
And then – it’s back to the old grind……!