La Befana, an Italian legend

The word “Befana” probably comes from a poetic take on Epiphany, when the divine figure of the Baby Jesus in the manger appeared to the Magi. This visitation is celebrated on 6 January.

The old woman, La Befana, as she’s known in Italian, originates in that dreamlike world somewhere between Father Christmas and The Three Wise Men. The moral draws a line between girlhood and the first signs of adulthood as the Befana is someone who judges, rewards and punishes children, depending on whether they have behaved well or not, by giving them sweets or pieces of coal.

That’s not all. The Befana belongs to the world of witches, with her broom, warty, upturned and Dante-like nose, bringing threadbare stockings filled with gifts. The Befana is a modern character, fluid and contradictory: she’s lovely like a loving grandmother and a bit batty and ugly like a white-haired crone; she’s good with her sweet gifts and bad with her coal-bearing punishments; she’s lavish with presents, but poor with her frayed stockings and torn clothes. Most importantly, she puts in an appearance at the end of the Christmas holidays, a favorite with all kids, and so the saying goes, “she takes away all the festivities”. The Befana is the charioteer who drives children towards maturity, introducing them to grown-up feelings like guilt, sadness and nostalgia.

I still remember that bittersweet taste of bygone sixth of Januaries. Raining, rarely snowing, almost always dark and foggy, homework still left to do before going back to school and parents returning to work after so many days together during the holidays. I remember my own self-judgement on receiving a piece of coal (nevertheless a minority compared to the sweet treats, for the sake of clarity!), the taste of Epiphany lunch, even more intense than Christmas… It’s true that the Befana brushes away the festivities, but she also gave me the awareness, more than other reassuring (and boring) figures in my youth, of leaving me a lot too, of having made me grown up a little and made me the master of my own destiny and behavior, an educator before her time who is still worth celebrating, even as an adult.