Epiphany: from its origins to Italian Traditions

One of the most loved holidays by the Italians 

Where does the holiday originate?

The term Befana derives from Greek, and has been present in Italy, starting from Tuscany and Lazio, since the fourteenth century – it is mentioned for the first time by Francesco Berni in 1535 – used to indicate the female puppet displayed, in fact, on the night of the Epiphany. The Epiphany celebration, however, is due to pagan rituals of a propitiatory nature, linked to seasonal agricultural cycles. Rites that were later adopted by the Romans and placed between the winter solstice and the Sol Invictus festivity.

In the 12 days following the Solstice, in fact, the Romans believed that female characters flew over the cultivated fields to guarantee their fertility. Some scholars have associated these figures to the goddess Diana, protector of vegetation and game, others to minor deities such as Sàtia (satiety) and Abùndia (abundance), or an ancient winter festival held in honor of Janus and Strenia, from which the term Strenna (meaning gift) would derive.

Over the centuries, and with the advent of Christianity, the figure of the Befana was freed from the more pagan references, but always placed on the twelfth night after Christmas, becoming part of Italian tradition.

Over the years Epiphany has become one of the most heartfelt and loved holidays by Italian families, becoming part of the cultural heritage of the country. The Befana, in fact, appears in the tradition of many Italian cities and towns, in the shape of an old woman who distributes sweets and presents to children being also the one that “all holidays takes away”.

Epifania, Epiphany

The Three Wise Men

The tradition of the sweets is linked to the Three Wise Men. The three kings, in fact, on a journey in search of Jesus’ birthplace, met an old woman whom they asked to accompany them on their journey to bring gifts to the Saviour. The woman initially refused to follow them, but then, repentant, she gathered a basket full of sweets and tried to reach the Three Kings and with them Baby Jesus. Unable to find them, she knocked on every door, giving the children of the house the sweets she had with her.

La Befana, moreover, is linked in many countries to the tradition of burning a dummy that represents the old year which has just ended. A tradition that we find in Gallipoli as well as Bologna or in Piedmont. A common feature to all the representations is the broom, which the Befana rides like a witch, but holding it the other way round.

Our traditions

And now a look at the traditions and folklore related to this holiday.

In the regions of Marche and Abruzzo it is thought that on the night of the Befana animals begin to talk, while in Bologna they say that the city walls turn to ricotta. In Calabria there is an augural song, sung by girls, for the coming year. In Piazza Duomo, in Milan, a procession of Wise Men, walks towards the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio.

In Fornovo sul Taro, in the province of Parma, there is even the Befana National Meeting, accompanied by parades, markets and games. Piazza Navona is the Roman place that has always held celebrations for Epiphany: shows, performances, games, and a meeting with the Befana and the Three Wise Men mark the most awaited moment by children. And there are references to wine and country life!

In Tuscany we look through up the chimney to predict the trend of the enological year, in Friuli we run through the vineyards crying of “Pan and vin, pan and vin and the grace of God gioldarin”, while in Veneto we focus on a large wooden pyre called “Panevìn”, on which the dummy of The Vecia (meaning The Old Woman) is placed, drinking wine and drawing forecasts about the harvest. In Venice, the Befana Regatta, has been held along the Grand Canal for thirty years.

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