Saturday, January 10, 2015

La Befana

January 6, 2015

The Epiphany Festival celebrates the manifestation or revelation that the Christ child is the Son of God in many religions and cultures throughout the world and in Italy is celebrated on January 6.  This is the day La Befana visits all the children.

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Christian legend had it that Befana was approached by the biblical magi, also known as the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus.  They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know.  She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home.  The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework.  Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus.  That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby.  She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.

Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved.  However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her.  Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son.  She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy.  The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn't wish to be seen.  This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds.

Another commonly heard Christian legend of la Befana starts at the time of the birth of baby Jesus.  Befana spends her days cleaning and sweeping.  One day the magi, also known as the three wise men, came to her door in search of baby Jesus.  Befana turned them away because she was too busy cleaning.  Befana notices a bright light in the sky; she thinks this is the way to baby Jesus.  She brought some baked goods and gifts for baby Jesus in her bag and took her broom to help the new mother clean and began her search for baby Jesus.  She searched and searched for Baby Jesus, but never found him.  Befana still searches today, after all these centuries.  On the eve of the Epiphany, Befana comes to a house where there is a child and leaves a gift.  Although she has been unsuccessful in her search, she still leaves gifts for good young children because the Christ Child can be found in all children. 

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Regardless of the real reason the Befana comes to visit, it is a national holiday in Italy.  The children all receive gifts and all the stores close.  It's a bigger holiday than Christmas.

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