January 6th, the Epiphany, is a major holiday in Italy. Celebrations begin on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany. We spent this holiday in Frabosa Soprana, a small town nestled at the foot of the Alps. In addition to being minutes away from gorgeous alpine skiing (Prato Nevosa and Artesina), Frabosa has retained much of it’s old world charm.
The holiday is marked by a visit from Befana, depicted as a witch flying on a broomstick.
In popular folklore Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their stockings with candy and presents if they are good. Or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child's family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana.
She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both. (*Wikepedia)
On the eve of the Epihany, We gathered in the main town square to watch Befana catapult down a zip line, throwing candy from her sack. She landed right in front of the town church and led the procession in to the church, where a presepe was staged. Isabelle and Azalia loved seeing real chickens playing the role of livestock inside the church, and all of the children dressed as angels by Baby Jesus’ side in the manger.
On the day of the Epihpany, we went skiing at Prato Nevosa. Similar to the tradition of holiday Santa Claus' celebrating with children at Christmastime, various folks dressed as Befana could be seen up and down the slopes, sporting witches’ hats and handing out candy to children.
Of course I didn’t know the story of the Befana at the time, so I stood in the square wondering why a guy dressed as a witch was zip lining through town. (Although coming from San Francisco, this wasn’t THAT bizarre to me). It wasn’t until Isabelle came home from her first day back at school and said “Who the heck is the Befana? Why didn’t I get any gifts? Everyone in class had to say what the Befana brought them and I had no idea what they were talking about!” that I researched the holiday and realized I had committed a major parental screw up. For Italians, Befana is akin to Santa Claus. We hadn’t left out a glass of wine for the Befana (who doesn’t love a wine drinking witch?) nor had we hung stockings. Of course I hadn’t left the children gifts on the Befana’s behalf. Having just done the huge Santa and the Elves routine on Dec 25, piles of gifts under the tree, I had completely missed the boat on the equally important (if not more) tradition of the Befana. Luckily, Isabelle wasn’t bothered. The image of a haggard old witch isn’t nearly as appealing to her as Santa and the Elves.
All photographs Copyright 2015, Clay McLachlan