In virtually every country where Christmas is celebrated, there is a tradition of a late-night traveler who visits the homes of children leaving presents, treats, and occasionally the occasional pice of coal. In most countries this visitor is either Santa Claus or Father Christmas, or some amalgam of the two. Not so in much of Italy. Here, in the country longest shadowed by the conservative rigors of the Catholic Church, where the actual tomb of St. Nicholas can be found, the mysterious night visitor is… an old witch named Befana.
The tradition of Befana is unique to Italy. According to legend, she lived along the route that the Three Wise Men took on their journey to visit the infant Jesus. She offered them shelter for the night, and in return they invited her to join them on their trek to Bethlehem. Befana declined, then later regretted her choice, and followed them. By the time she reached Bethlehem Jesus and his parents were gone, having fled from the wrath of King Herod. She has wandered the world ever since, searching for the Messiah.
At some point the Befana tradition clearly blended with the tradition of Santa Claus, or at least borrowed from it. It is she who brings good children in Italy presents and treats, while bad children receive lumps of coal (another Italian tradition is that no child is good all of the time, so most receive at least a few pieces of coal, usually in the form of dark-colored rock candy. The largest departure from the Santa Claus tradition is that Befana visits on the Eve of Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas. The city of Urbania is home to the Befana Festival, the largest such celebration in Italy.
The city of Urbania in Central Italy, approximately 110 miles north of Rome, is currently endeavoring to become the home of Befana in much the same way as Rovaniemmi in Finland has become the ‘home’ of Santa Claus. The main event is the Befana Festival which takes place in the five days between New Year and Epiphany. Dates and times of the festival vary from year-to-year, but generally fall on the last few days leading up to Epiphany. There is no cost of admission. Urbania also has plans to build a Befana-themed post office to which Italian children can send their holiday wishlists. Web: www.labefana.com (official website of the Befana Festival)