On a broomstick, on a motorbike or in a gondola, the modern Befana roams Italy from town to town.
By Silvia Sperandio
Translated by Jack Davidson Walmsley
2021 has just begun, and the last of the celebrations to close the Christmas season in Italy. On the 6th of January, as per tradition, the Befana will fly with her broom across Italy from North to South, including the islands, taking away everything negative that happened in the past year and opening the New Year with joy, sympathy and, a lot of hope for a new and prosperous start.
But who is the Befana, this sprightly old woman who flies from house to house on Epiphany to bring sweets or coal to the children?
Celebrated throughout Italy and eagerly awaited by children, the Epiphany is linked to ancient traditions and legends, one of which recounts that on the day of Jesus’ birth, the Three Kings asked an old woman if she could show them the house of the future King, but she could not give them an answer. The three kings asked the grandmother to join them, but she refused despite their insistence, and when she finally decided to follow them, she realised that she was alone, but she did not lose heart. The old lady put a lot of sweets in a large sack and walked from house to house, knocking on the door in search of the holy child and giving a sweet to the little ones she met along the way.
On the night of the 5th of January, children all over Italy traditionally hang up stockings in their homes, which they will find filled with sweets and candies the following day. They also leave a glass of milk and a plate of biscuits on the kitchen table for the old lady to use as refreshment between one broomstick trip and the next. Beware, however, if the children have been naughty, they will find coal in their stockings, and even if it’s made of sugar for the occasion, it is still black and hard to bite. Many cities celebrate Epiphany with events ranging from craft markets to bonfires, from living nativity scenes to parades of the Three Wise Men, from witches descending from bell towers to Epiphany puppets that end up in the bonfires of large squares, and there are also numerous charity events such as the Motobefana in Milan.
Due to the prolongation of the Covid emergency and not being able to guarantee social distancing, several of these events have been cancelled. Nevertheless, these are fine traditions to know about, also because they could be useful for organising your next Italian tour, when we can travel safely again! Brusa la Vecia (Burn the old woman): In the city of Verona in Veneto, in Piazza Bra, where the arena provides the setting for the beautiful celebration of the ancient popular rite of passage from the old year to the new one, “La Vecia” (the old woman in Venetian dialect) is built in large dimensions to symbolise the past year and then thrown into the great bonfire that symbolically burns away everything negative that happened during the past year, creating new energy for the new year. The Propitiatory event takes place at sunset around 6 pm, accompanied by music and dancing that in ordinary times, would involve both locals and tourists. An excellent opportunity to visit the beautiful and ancient city of Verona, which will seduce you with it’s romanticism.
Another event in Lombardy, now in its 53rd year, is the motorbike parade organised since 1967 by the Motoclub Ticinese of Milan and entitled “A day of smiles”. Initiated by brothers Nino and Sergio Rovatti and a group of friends who shared a passion for motorbikes, hence, the idea of bringing gifts to the children on Epiphany Day by Milanese motorcyclists was born. The foundation chosen was the Martinitt Institute (“Martinin” in Milanese dialect means orphan and derives from the name from the church of San Martino near which stood the house that housed orphaned or abandoned children), founded in Milan in 1532 and still active today. The Befana charity motorbike ride is repeated every year (now suspended due to Covid) with hundreds of motorbikes parading through the streets of Milan to bring gifts to other charities such as the Piccolo Cottolengo Don Orione in Milan and the Istituto Sacra Famiglia in Cesano Boscone. The purpose of the bikers, who are often disguised as the “Befana” riding their motorbikes, is to make the kids smile.
The Befana in a gondola: In Venice, since 1978 the tradition has been that the Befana prefers the gondola to the broom. Two members of the Reale Società Canottieri Bucintoro Asd (Royal Bucintoro Rowing Society) challenged each other on the 6th of January 43 years ago on the waters of the Grand Canal, and every year since then the gondoliers have challenged each other, strictly dressed as witches, in the funniest race of the year. The Regatta is sponsored by both the Veneto Region and the Municipality of Venice and sees the over-50s compete in a gondola oar race. The winner is whoever crosses the finish line first, at the height of the beautiful Rialto Bridge, where a giant stocking is symbolically hung. In non-Covid times the calli (as the streets are known by locals) of Venice are usually crowded with Venetians and tourists curious to see the “Befane”.
The Befana on a bicycle: In Emilia Romagna, for some years now, in the centre of Bologna, on the 6th of January, the Befana rides a bicycle through the streets of the city while sweets and hot chocolate are enjoyed by crowds of adults and children alike.
Turin’s giant sweets: Let’s now fly to Piedmont. The historic bar Al Bicerin in Turin offered a giant gianduiotto (the traditional Piedmontese chocolate) to the people of Turin for Epiphany in 2020. 5 kg of exquisite chocolate were presented in the bar where Camillo Benso Count of Cavour loved to relax, because this bar is only 257 years old!
In Sabaudia, Lazio, the youngest city in Italy, founded only in 1933, the Befana leaves her broom to travel by boat and disembark in the city after crossing one of the coastal lakes.
And last, but not least, there is the Befana of Urbania in the Marche region, where the old woman is said to have appeared in magical events as early as pre-Christian times. The term “Befana” derives from the Greek “Epifania”, meaning “apparition” or “manifestation”, which is why the 6th of January is called Epiphany Day.
In Urbania, the Befana is bound to traditions: she travels on a sorghum broom and flies over the rooftops, entering homes through the chimney and, instead of milk and biscuits, she prefers to find a glass of red wine accompanied by mandarins or oranges on the kitchen table. This custom was also carried on in nearby Umbria, where until a few decades ago, the Befana left mandarins, oranges, dried fruit and a few sweets in the children’s stockings.
In Urbania, where the celebrations are long and usually last three days, during which the witches invade the town and run around on foot giving sweets to good children or scolding bratty children. A few years ago a 50-metre-long stocking was sewn here, carried in a procession by a few hundred strong Befana’s, because 50 kg of stocking weighs a lot. The feast of the Befana in Urbania is something really not to be missed, walking in the streets of the city you can see the beautiful lights that highlight the colourful socks hanging from the windows and the doors of the houses. For three days everyone becomes a child, with jugglers, street artists, stilt walkers, markets and the unmissable event that crowns the festivities: the flight of the Befana from the bell tower accompanied by a shower of candy falling from the sky instead of fireworks. During the festivities, some of the city’s most important monuments are opened and can be visited with a special guide, the Befana!
And finally, a curiosity: a super-sock about 80 metres long, 1 metre in diameter and 3 metres and more in circumference, weighing an estimated 600 kilograms, was sewn a few years ago in Pietramelara in the Caserta area of Campania.
Due to the pandemic emergency linked to the spread of the coronavirus, the 2021 events may be modified or even cancelled. I kindly ask you to check with the local authorities if interested.
Jack Walmsley, British blood but Italian in his heart. Passionate about Rugby, Food, Nature and Mixology (Gin in particular). Aspiring member of the Golden Keys currently in force at the Park Hyatt Milan as Night Goalkeeper, the undisputed reality of Milanese hospitality. The Lockdown was a hard blow for me, but I can't wait to get back in the game!
Jack Walmsley, sangue Britannico ma Italiano nel cuore. Appassionato di Rugby, Cibo, Natura e Mixology (Gin in particolare). Membro aspirante delle Chiavi d’oro attualmente in forza al Park Hyatt Milano come Portiere Notturno, realta’ indiscussa dell´ospitalita´ Milanese. Il Lockdown per me e´stato un duro colpo, ma non vedo l’ora di rimettermi in gioco! Traduco i testi in inglese per EnjoyItalyGo. Linkedin
Lavoro nel mondo del turismo da sempre, in hotel, in ristoranti e compagnie aeree dove ho avuto anche Niki Lauda come capo. Dal 2017 organizzo corsi di formazione professionale per varie realtà nel mondo dell’ospitalità fra le quali A.L.P.A. (Associazione Lombarda Portieri d’Albergo); U.I.P.A. (Unione Italiana Portieri d’Albergo); FORMATEMP. Mi occupo di consulenza e formazione nel campo del turismo, Hospitality e food and beverage. EnjoyItalyGo è il mio nuovo progetto, di cui sono fondatrice, attraverso il quale desidero far conoscere il genius loci dell’Italia, nel mondo. Sono innamorata dell’Italia e insieme ai talentuosi redattori di EIG e ai molti professionisti con cui collaboro, ve la farò scoprire! Linkedin.
I have always worked in the world of tourism, in hotels, restaurants and airlines where I also had Niki Lauda as a boss. Since 2017 I have been organizing professional training courses for various realities in the hospitality world, including A.L.P.A. (Lombard Association of Hotel Porters); U.I.P.A. (Italian Union of Hotel Porters); FORMAT TEMP. I deal with consulting and training in the field of tourism, hospitality and food and beverage. EnjoyItalyGo is my new project, of which I am the founder, through which I want to make known the genius loci of Italy in the world. I am in love with Italy and together with the talented editors of EIG and the many professionals I work with, I will let you discover it! Linkedin.