Not long ago, while I was in the process of negotiating a flat rental in Rome, my potential landlady emailed me that she was having trouble using her online booking agency’s confusing website. “Sometimes,” she wrote, “I feel like I’m just an old Befana — all this technology has got me completely befuddled!” Well, I knew that La Befana is a legendary figure in Italian folklore, an old woman who delivers gifts to children on the eve of Epiphany (5 January), and I vaguely recalled that she dresses like a witch and flies through the sky on a broom — sort of a female version of Father Christmas or Santa Claus. But I didn’t know what she had to do with befuddlement.
Eventually we did take the flat for a couple of months, and I forgot all about La Befana, until we wandered into Piazza Navona on 5 January, and found ourselves surrounded by a Befana festival, complete with balloons, a carousel, ring-toss booths and other games of skill. “Si vince sempre!” they proclaimed — “Everyone’s a winner!”, as we might say. There were buskers, too, as well as face-painters, and crowds enjoying the scene — in short, everything you need for a happy celebration.
La Befana was there, too, of course. In fact, several iterations of her. The most popular face-painter was a kindly-looking Befana; another Befana in a huge black witch’s hat was twisting balloons into animal shapes; a third, very scary-looking Befana had a beggar’s cup (I’m guessing she was not distributing gifts to the kiddies). Elsewhere, another Befana (wearing stylish sunglasses) shared a sleigh with Santa Claus. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. I realised I needed to find out more about this traditional old lady who could commandeer Rome’s busiest square for a party in her honour.
It seems the genesis of almost every traditional folkloric character in the Western world, if you consult the academics, is found in Pagan cult figures. This is true of La Befana, as well; but, frankly, the relationship they cite to the Roman goddess Strenua is tenuous, and their reasoning much too strenuous, for me. I like the plain, simple, humble Befana, who lived alone in a little house that she always kept neat as a pin. So neat it was, in fact, that when the Three Kings, on their way to deliver presents to the Christ child, stopped in her village and inquired for a place to stay, the villagers pointed out her cottage. After the Magi had enjoyed a night’s rest, they invited Befana to accompany them on their quest. Befana, after some hesitation, declined — because, of course, after you’ve entertained three aristocrats overnight, there’s considerable cleaning to do. So the Three Wise Men continued on their way. But when her housework was done, Befana realized she really did want to go and give something to the newborn King, so off she went, carrying some tasty home-made treats, (not forgetting her broom, just in case), in search of Jesus.
Everywhere she went, she asked where she could find the baby Jesus, but without success. She met a lot of children, of course; and being the kindly sort, she couldn’t resist giving them gifts, if she sensed they were well-behaved; otherwise, she gave them lumps of coal. I’m not sure where she got the candy and toys and coal from, or when she discovered that she could cover more territory by flying on her broom. But ever since, on the twelfth night of the Christmas season, she flies around the world (or at least Italy), diving down chimneys or squeezing through apartment door keyholes, to deliver presents.
It’s traditional to leave her a midnight snack of wine and salami – much more sustaining than milk and cookies.
Like Santa Claus, Befana has not escaped modern commercialisation: you can see racks of Befana dolls filled with candy in the local supermercato. But even these seem to have retained a little of Befana’s innocence. So now I understand why my landlady, lost in the rental agency’s badly programmed interface, trying to make me an offer, felt like La Befana.
Her goal wasn’t nearly as pious, of course; but just like Befana trying to find Bethlehem, she was a bit befuddled.