“La Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte…”
“The witch comes at night with her shoes all broken..”
For us presents do not end at Christmas and so we prepare ourselves to receive them in stockings placed by the fire.
The Befana will come down the chimney in the early morning of January 6th… a tradition that existed long before Santa Claus made his way into our homes guided by his reindeer.
Can you imagine a 90 year old woman (she stopped counting her years centuries ago) sliding down your chimney? You probably can’t, but for a child everything is possible.
That’s where the magic lives.
The Epifania marks the official end of the holiday season, commemorating the day when the three Wise Men brought gifts to Mary’s new born child.
Every year, the occasion is celebrated with live nativity scenes, a great procession throughout the city center and, most exciting for candy lovers, the arrival of the Befana!
The legend goes that during their long journey the Three Wise Men encountered a woman, who, like every Italian mother or housewife would have done, offered them delicious food and hospitality.
After the cordial woman fed them, hosted them and showed them the way to Jerusalem, the three Wise Men offered her to join them. Feeling overwhelmed by the proposal and guilty to leave her many daily chores, she denied and said goodbye as they set off into the sunrise. She regretted her choice immediately and started the journey on her own, looking for baby Jesus in every home, offering candy and gifts to all the children she met along the way.
Since then every night between the 5th and the 6th of January she continues her search broom in hand, dressed with a long skirt covered by a patched apron, and a handkerchief on her head tied up under her chin, bringing toys and sweets to all children.
We, in our checkered pyjamas prepare, with great care and trepidation, biscuits, mandarins and grappa to warm up la Befana. Every January 5th evening right before going to bed, we close our eyes, whisper wishes with fingers crossed behind our back; this allows us to break our promises while swearing with one hand on our heart. While trying to shut our eyes we make amends hoping to be forgiven for a couple of pranks we played during the year. That night we fell asleep to the idea of la Befana filling up our stockings with small gifts instead of charcoal from the chimney although the charcoal has recently been replaced with sugary black blocks (not bad!).
How fascinating it was to believe in something… without “ifs” or “buts”, to simply believe in something so magical that would keep us up all night.
The morning of January 6th just like the one of December 25th must be one of the few mornings where children are awakened by pure excitement, followed by a race into the living room. An excitement that is palpable in the air and which memory still feels very much alive.
The desire to get to know what lies behind the mystery, which has always been part of this festivity, adds a great deal of enchantment.
Wooden swords, rag dolls, toy soldiers and chocolate coins.
Then we have to choose between dipping our arms into the stocking and picking up sweets one by one or for the less patient (like myself) the method is simple: turn the stocking upside down to quickly spill its contents all over the floor.
I like to think that there’s an inner child inside of us that we suddenly and unexpectedly meet again in some rare moments. Moments with family, surrounded by tradition or in places that we love to call home. We need tradition to keep us steady, while time keeps running. These traditions have the ability to give us a sense of time and place, of belonging and the magic of having something to look forward to year after year.
Tradition sneaks in between marshmallows, almond paste and liquorice sticks and takes different shapes depending on your region. We always opt for tradition and if you do too here are some from January 6th, Epifania, and the arrival of la Befana:
Focaccia della Befana, Piemonte (also known as Fugassa)
Long leavening dough, a sweet focaccia enriched with candied fruit that hides… a surprise! Indulge and look for a lucky coin (as if you needed one more reason to eat it all!)
Christmas trees, sleigh bells or star shaped biscuits flavoured with lemon zest and decorated with coloured sugar. Born in Viareggio and then adopted by the rest of Tuscany, children used to prepare and deliver them to friends and relatives (while on their way they used to eat half of them).
Pinza della Marantega (in dialect means Befana), Veneto
Raisins, grappa, dried figs, pine nuts and candied oranges. Flatbread that farmers used to prepare and cover with cabbage leaves then placed under the bonfire for New Years and Epifania celebrations.
In Rome Befana’s tradition needs to be experienced in Piazza Navona (truly missed this year because of Covid). Bagpipers, cotton candy, caramelised apples and gingerbread. The merry-go-round straight out of Mary Poppins and sugared almonds.
Shortcrust pastry in donut shape hiding delicious secrets on the inside: dried figs, candied pumpkin, orange marmalade, dark chocolate, nuts and cinnamon.
In Milan we can easily imagine her grabbing the last pastries, before deliveries, at Marchesi.
This is our sweet way to end the Holiday season.
After all, what’s wrong with believing in something without doubts or hesitation for one day a year?