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Our Blogger: Ilaria
Ilaria, born and bred Venetian, introduces us to this peculiar Italian tradition.
Children are fascinated and a little bit frightened by this enigmatic, funny eerie character whose existence sink its roots into the ground of paganism.
In days of yore , on the twelfth night after the Christmas day (the 25th of December), day of the winter solstice, people used to celebrate death and rebirth of nature through the pagan figure of “ Mother Nature”.
The night of the 6th of January , tired tired after spending all her energy during the year, she appeared in the shape of an old and benevolent witch who flew through the sky on a broom giving away gifts and candy to everybody. By now completely dried, Mother Nature was ready to be burned like a branch , to be able to born again from her own ashes as youthful Nature.
Like others traditions in Italy ( Christmas itself for example) the originary pagan meaning of epiphany (term deriving from greek that means “manifestation”, “appearance” , implied of divinity , used from the Christian tradition to nominate the first Jesus Christ’s manifestation) has been modified during years becoming as we know nowadays. In Italian, the name “epifania” (- epiphany ) itself transformed into “bifanìa” and than again into “befanìa” , the word then changed once and for all into “befana”, and designates now the old benevolent witch .
The “befana” is still pictured as the old mother natured described above, and in the rural tradition people used to prepare a puppet with her shape and burn it the night between the 5th and the 6th of January as a rite of purification ( the Italian movie of 1973 “Amarcord” by Federico Fellini shows this rite in the first scene ).
So if you’re walking through fancy open-markets during Xmas time, don’t be astonished to see many little puppets shaped as an old smiling witch on a broom..
You’ll also see a lot of colourful Christmas socks : according to the tradition children must hang them on a wall so that they can be filled with candies, chocolate or toys by the Befana. Children must be careful anyway: if they haven’t been good boys during the year, the “befana” will bring them peaces of coa insteadl!
This festivity is the last afterNew year’s day, that’s why here we call “epiphany” the festivity that all festivities takes away : “ L’epifania tutte le feste porta via”.