In Rome, on the evening of January 5th, kids know that they have to go to sleep early. Already, for the past two or three days, they have likely been glancing up, curious and a bit afraid, looking for the Befana—the very old woman that in this period flies on a broomstick up above the Roman roofs. On this night, she will visit every house, bringing sweets to the good children and a black coil to the bad ones. (In any case, don’t worry! The coil is most likely made of black sugar.)
Even a “coal” from the Befana can be a treat.
On the morning of the 6th, it is a special day in which kids get excited and parents become children again. The little ones wake early and cagily run in the kitchen to check if the stockings they left close to the hood have been filled (in Rome fireplaces are not common!).
History of the Befana
Certainly the tradition of the Befana is much more ancient and deep-rooted in the Roman culture than that of Santa Claus (or Babbo Natale). It is related to the Epiphany, from which it is named after. In fact during the centuries, “epifania” became “pifania” and then “bifania” up till it became transformed little by little into befana.
“Befana” we now know as the name of the ugly old lady that, according to the legend, was asked by the Magi to show them the right way to get to the Infant Jesus. Since it was very cold, she refused to join them, but later, feeling remorse, she decided to go around taking a gift to every child, hoping to meet Jesus.
From then on “the Befana” has become part of the life of Rome and in particular of the little Romans. Every year there are several events in her honor. The most famous is the typical market in Piazza Navona, which starts on December 8th and ends the evening of the 6th of January. All the families go there to buy characters for the crèche or candies, and to let the kids have a ride on the ancient carousel. On January 6th the square is so crowded that it’s almost impossible to get there: in fact, the Befana heself is there in person and every kid wants a picture with her!
A broom from the market of Befana
Final note: Make a Clean Sweep for the New Year
Going to the holiday market of the Befana, one must not forget to get one scopetta scacciaguai—a trouble-shooting small broom—to be hung in a corner of the house to help avoid troubles for all the year, while awaiting the next 6th of January.