How did ‘La Befana’ tradition originate?

The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on the 6th January and commemorates the visit by the Three Magi to baby Jesus. In various European countries, today is a public feast as many of these countries celebrate it with various traditions.

In Italy, children eagerly wait for the night between the 5th and 6th January as, according to tradition, on that night an elderly woman, known as La Befana, visits their homes to give them presents or sweets if they behaved well during the previous year, or coal if they didn’t. Many children also sing various rhymes in preparation for the Befana visit.

How did this Befana tradition come about? We spoke with Anna Porcheddu, former lecturer at the University of Malta and current events organiser at the Italian Cultural Institute, who explained the origin of this tradition.

“There is a nice legend going with it, which is that Befana was the old lady that the three kings met on their way to go and actually see baby Jesus. So what happened was they asked her to help them and to go with them, and she thought Gosh it’s very far away, it’s too long so no I’m not going with them. So eventually she said no I’m not coming, and then she really regretted it. So as soon as they left she decided to prepare a basket with some fruit so that she could try to follow them and give a little present to the children she was going to meet, hoping to meet baby Jesus. That is what happens, children look forward to receive something from Befana, but they have to be good boys and good girls.”

Anna Porcheddu added that contrary to Santa Claus where children have to write a letter to him to visit them on Christmas night, Italian children hang up a sock so that the Befana will place sweets in it .

In Spain, importance is given to the Three Magi as thousands of children, together with their families, gather in Madrid streets and other cities on Sunday evening for the Three Magi annual parade. This also includes floats with participants dressed in colourful costumes throwing sweets and toys to the children. During the night between the 5th and 6th January, Spanish children also wait for the Three Wise Men to give them gifts at home.

In Prague, the Czech Republic, a procession is held by the Three Magi wearing rich clothes and riding camels. The procession is held to raise funds for families in need.

During the Angelus, Pope Francis said that the Magi who traveled from far away to visit Jesus experienced Jesus in their lives. He stated that each experience of a meeting with Jesus leads a person to discover life, and it was for this factor that the Magi changed their route and did not go to Herod.

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