The origins of the Befana: a festival dedicated to nature

All parts of the cycle of nature and also the feast of January 6 were created to celebrate an important moment in the life of plants. Although today we see only the Three Wise Men or Befana, it all began many years before and is linked to the winter solstice.

Winter is the time when some plants die but it is also the beginning of new lives that slowly begin to form under the ground and on the branches of trees. For this reason New Year is celebrated at this time of year, and the birth and death of nature are also reflected in the passage of the calendar year.

But from solstice onwards the days reach out again and life returns to beat in different forms. So in the ancient traditions the twelve days after the solstice are the most important of the year and in the period between December 25 (which was traditionally the solstice) and January 6 a few miracles take place.

According to Roman tradition, between the end of December and 6 January the goddess Diana flew over the fields to make them fertile. Also the goddess bore gifts of fruit or sweets to children, and this seems very much like the Christian tradition and to that of Befana.

While the Three Wise Men bring gifts coming on the backs of camels, the Befana witch flies just like the goddess Diana, but uses a broom, and both bring gifts on the night between 5 and 6 January. The gifts of the Befana are just sweets and candies that are put in socks of the children.

There is a legend that connects the Three Wise Men with a little old lady to whom they had inquired about the road to Bethlehem. The old lady was sorry that she refused to help them so left the house and followed them starting to give gifts to the children she met in the hope that one of them would be Jesus.

Solstice, Christmas, New Year, Epiphany, Three Wise Men, Befana are all connected even if today the most pagan of Santa Claus and Befana prevail by far.

Ancient traditions remain in many countries such as the lighting of bonfires that mark the very end of Mother Nature’s dying tree branches from whose ashes then will be born the ‘Daughters of Nature’. Fire and ash, the fireworks mix with the noises but increasingly they have become distinctive elements capable of giving unique emotions to those who live there.

Throughout the Veneto they light bonfires where they burn a straw puppet representing ‘the old’, i.e. the old year, while savouring local mulled wine. The best are in Valpolicella Verona. In other Italian regions, such as Abruzzo and Marche, a legend has it that on this night the animals start talking, telling stories and making prophecies and, for this, the farmers sleep next to them.

In Serrone, a town near Rome, the Befana comes hang-gliding from the mountains of Serrone and at Mondovi, near Torino comes in a balloon at the annual international gathering.