A lump of coal or a sweet treat is my way of introducing an old Italian tradition to you. The visit of the Befana witch (La Befana) on the eve of Epiphany.
A Lump Of Coal Or A Sweet Treat?
Epiphany falls on 6 January and is a religious feast day recognizing the arrival of the three kings (the Magi) at the crib of the baby Jesus. This is a very popular day in Italy and is an annual public holiday. It also marks the end of the Christmas festivities and means it is time to take down all of the Christmas decorations.
But for Italian children, there is also the excitement of the visit of the Befana!
A Lovable Old Witch
In Italian folklore, the Befana is a lovable old witch, always depicted as an old hag. She wears a black shawl covered in soot from climbing down chimneys, a back of goodies and a broom. She is usually depicted with a broad smile.
A Visit The Night Before Epiphany
She visits Italian children on the night before Epiphany and fills their stockings with sweet treats – or a lump of coal if they have been naughty. She is a national icon! At this time of year the shops are full of sweet treats and goodies and Befana stockings are available everywhere. Even at our local pet food supply shop!
In reality, children tend to get sweet treats rather than coal. But ‘coal’ does exist in the form of black rock candy.
The Befana Tradition
La Befana was initially a tradition in Rome and Central Italy but the custom spread to the rest of the country. It is very popular here in Umbria where I live.
According to tradition, the Befana comes down the chimney (reminiscent of Santa). The family of the child or children leave a glass of wine and a plate of food, usually panettone, for her. After she has left a lump of coal or a sweet treat for each child, she is said to sweep the floor with her broom before she leaves. This is symbolic of sweeping away any problems lingering from the previous year.
The Befana is portrayed as an old hag riding a broomstick and wearing a black shawl covered with soot from climbing down chimneys. She is usually smiling and has a bag of goodies that she is carrying.
Watch Out For That Broomstick!
Tradition has it that the Befana doesn’t like to be seen by anyone. If someone does see her it is said they will receive a sharp thump from her broomstick – presumably a clever ruse to keep children in bed! The children wake up to filled stockings and gifts.
Will the Befana visit your house tonight? Have you been good or naughty? Will she leave you a lump of coal or a sweet treat?
Before you go
My name is Dorothy Berry-Lound an artist and writer. You can find out more about my art and writing at https://dorothyberryloundart.com.
Thank you for reading!