Merry Epiphany! From La Befana (the Christmas Witch)


As we limp towards the end of our first sullen week back at work, spare a thought for the Italians, who’ll be raving it up for an extra 24 hours today with their Christmas bonus ball, The Feast of Epiphany (January 6). The national holiday marks the Twelfth Day of Christmas, when the Three Wise Men finally rocked up at the manger with their baby-shower gifts.

For us folks in the UK, however, the festive season actually ended yesterday on January 5 – the official Twelfth Night of Christmas (according to the Church of England). And while most of us will have spent the evening tearing down the tinsel and tossing out the tree, Italian kids were hanging out their stockings and crossing their fingers for a visit from La Befana – the Christmas Witch.

Legend has it the night before they found the stable in Bethlehem, the Wise Guys knocked at an old woman’s shack to ask for directions, and explained about following the star. She was unable to help, but being considered the best housekeeper in town, she put them up for the night in her spotless home. The next day, they invited her to join them on their quest to find JC, but she declined, stating she was too busy with the housework.

Later that night while she was sweeping and cleaning, she too saw a bright light in the sky. Having a change of heart, she set off to search for the Magi and the Chosen One – but she couldn’t find them, and has been searching ever since. Each year on Epiphany Eve, La Befana rides around on her broomstick hoping to find baby Jesus, entering children’s homes through the chimney like St Nick, and leaving toys, candy or fruits for little angels, and coal, onions or garlic for little sh*ts.

On her way out, she helps herself to the small glass of wine and plate of snacks left out for her by the family, before sweeping the floor as she leaves, brushing away the problems of the previous year. If spotted by any eager children, however, she’ll bash them with her broomstick – apparently she’s very shy and doesn’t take kindly to being seen.

Looking like something straight out of Halloween (and markedly missing from the Bible’s version of events), this nativity favourite inspires a five-day festival in the Italian town of Urbania (January 2-6), thought to be her official home; and even a race, the Regatta delle Befane, where men dress up as the friendly hag and paddle their boats down the Grand Canal. Still kinda weird, though.

La Befana: because nothing says Christmas like a creepy old witch scuttling down your chimney in January. : 0


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