The Befana comes at night…

The original post was written on 3 January 2013, and to that I refer in the text.

Also, the translation of the nursery rhyme is mine; I don’t translate poetry, but I did my best!


Italia                   Francia               Spagna

Happy New Year everyone, I hope you did your best to celebrate, and that now you are enjoying these last days between holidays. As far as I am concerned, I am not exactly sure I stopped celebrating since three days ago!

As I said when I presented the blog, in my posts I will talk about anything that could be related to languages, and I think that traditions and folklore of different countries are subjects that must be included among those I should analyse. I have often spoken to foreigners about the Christmas season, and also about the Befana. Every single time, the reply has been: “The what?!” The same has happened some days ago, and I decided to dedicate this article not only to that beloved old lady so important for Italians, but also to the different traditions respected by several countries on Epiphany day.

Of course, I will start from my country, and I will explain whi the Befana is and what she does. She is a kind old lady who takes her name from the Christian holiday commemorated on 6 January. Befana, in fact, is a modification of the Italian word Epifania. This old lady looks like a witch, with old raggedy clothes, a hooked nose and a flying broom; nonetheless, she is kind and has no magic powers (apart from the one of flying a broom!) The night between 5 and 6 January, this cute lady gives sweets and dry fuits to good kids, and coal to the naughty ones. This, at least, was the tradition before mad consumerism changed this into another occasion to give huge expensive presents exactly as it happens on Christmas day. Luckily, it stayed as it was in my house!

Every Italian city has a different tradition on this day, and you can find them all on the web. Here, I will only talk about the one from Cagliari, close to me and also admirable (it is common to other cities as well.) Anyone can offer toys to the traffic officers who, disguised as befane, will give them to the children in the hospitals of the city. It is the famous “Befana of the traffic officers”, obviously. I remember that, when the roundabout was not yet there, the presents were gathered in a huge pyramid in the middle of the junction between via Dante and via Paoli, any idea if they still do that?

When I started studying French, between a prayer and a peom (let’s not talk about this subject,) we learnt about some similar traditions in France. Apparently, though, our French neighbours celebrate by eating the galette des Rois, so called in honour to the Magi. In this dessert was hidden a ring, but the web often talks about the figurine of a king (which makes more sense,) but it originally was just a broad bean. Anyway, who finds the surprise in his slice is the king, or queen, of the party, and has to buy a new galette. This is what I know about the tradition, but I would love if any of you who has more informations would like to add something.

In Spain, the tradition is a little different. The Epiphany is a very important holiday, and the Magi are those who bring the main presents, while Santa Claus only bring small gifts and sweets (again, consumerism is changing things.) Moreover, the different cities host the so called Cabalgatas de los Reyes Magos, the Magi’s parades, where the Magi, on their floats cross the streets giving candies to everyone. I can still remember, and miss, the cherry-flavoured ones from Girona!

Another Spanish tradition is the Roscón de Reyes, a ring-shaped sponge cake (that is, a roscón,) decorated with dried fruits. Now, of course, you can find several variations of it, with or without filling. This cakes as well, like the French ones, are inspired by the celebrations of theRoman empire, and should have a broad been inside.

I don’t know if you have been good or naughty, but they is no coal for you. This post is my Befana‘s present for you, together with a nursery rhyme about the nice old lady:

La Befana vien di notte

The Befana come at night

Con le scarpe tutte rotte

Her raggedy shoes on sight

Col cappello alla romana

Wears a hat the Roman way

Viva, Viva La Befana!

For the Befana horray, horray!

This is the version I learnt from my mother, but there are several of them, that talk of the dress instead of the hat, or that they change it completely for the patches on the dress, and so on. Happy Epiphany everyone!

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