Befana is a personage of the Italian folklore, similar to Nicolau de Mira or Santa Claus. The character may have originated in Rome, and then spread as a tradition throughout peninsular Italy and in Ticino, part of Italy.
La Befana is coming tonight
Tis the season for Milwaukee merriment and BMO Harris Bank is bringing you happy holiday stories all season long.
Long after St. Nick has come and gone, and while Santa is already back at the North Pole warming in front of the fire, La Befana continues her journey to the homes of kids across Italy and across the world whose families have roots in the boot. A major figure in Italian folklore, La Befana brings gifts to children on Jan. 5, the eve of Epiphany. Befana is hedging her bets.
The story goes that La Befana, a poor woman with a passion for baking – if you trust Tomie de Paola's version of the story, told in "The Legend of Old Befana" – and an obsessive compulsive sweeping disorder. When the three kings pass by her house looking for the newborn baby Jesus, and asking for directions when they don't find him, Befana is too focused on her baking and her sweeping to pay them any mind.
But as the procession wends its way off over the horizon, she sees a bright star in the sky and begins to wonder if she shouldn't have been so hasty in her dismissal. So, she packs up some goodies and hops onto her broom and flies off into the night looking, too, for the baby Jesus. Because she doesn't know where to find him, she brings candy and presents to children everywhere – as I say, hedging her bets.
In Milwaukee, Befana is a tradition for local Italian-Americans, many of whom can remember meeting her (hat tip to Anna Pitzo!) at the annual Christmas party at the Italian Community Center. Others, as children wake up to find gifts from her. In our house, already overloaded with candy and sweets after the holidays, Befana has always brought books, and sometimes a little toy and perhaps a little sweet. But we've put the focus on books.
Before bed on Jan. 5, we read de Paola's "The Legend of Old Befana," even though the kids have already known the story by heart for years, and then in the morning, they find more words. Because it's always a good time to maintain cultural traditions and any occasion, at least for me, is an occasion to give books.