They call it the silly season and it don’t get much sillier than here in Italy. It all starts on 6 December with San Nicolo and doesn’t end till the 6 January with the Epiphany or Festa della Befana, one of Italy’s oldest and most celebrated holidays.
Christian legend has it that the three Wise Men, in search of the Christ child, knocked on the door of an old woman’s house asking for directions. (Must be the first and last time a man did this). Broom in hand she answered, but had no ideas on where to find him and also declined their request to accompany them citing too much housework as her excuse. (Story of our lives). Then she had a change of heart, (no surprises here) and went looking for the Magi. Thinking of the great opportunity she has passed up, the old woman stopped every child she came across to give them a small treat in the hopes that one was the baby Jesus. She never found him and still searches to this day.
There is also evidence to suggest that La Befana descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strina who presided over the new year’s gifts, ‘Strenae,’ from which she derived her name. I’m going to go with the Christian version.
On the night between the 5th and 6th of January, La Befana, who is portrayed as an old hag, flies over the rooftops on her broom then shimmy’s down chimneys to fill the stockings that have been left by the children. Chocolates, sweets and treats for those children who have been well behaved, polite and stuck to the maxim that children should be seen and not heard; and lumps of coal and ashes for those who have freaked their parents out over the holidays causing a significant increase in their consumption of alcohol and sedatives.
According to my children it could be me on any given day except I am not partial to a broom, especially as a means of travel. I do keep one in the garage though in case my car won’t start.
I am led to believe that being an excellent housekeeper, La Befana will sweep the floors of your home before she leaves. I am banking on this – my house is in a sorry state having done precious little housework over the festive season – and so on the eve of the Epiphany, I will be chilling out with my feet up. I wonder what it will take for her to do the ironing too.