Porta cenere e carboni
ai bambini cattivoni
ai bambini belli e buoni
porta chicchi e tanti doni!
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all broken
With a dress in Roman style
Up, up with the Befana !!
She brings ashes and coal
To bad nasty children
To the nice good child
She brings candies and many gifts!
This was the feast that the children used to wait for throughout the year, in the times when Babbo Natale (created in Coca Cola colors, the fat and joyous symbol of wealth imported from America, where he was derived from the figure of St Nicholas, who in Southern Italy used to bring gifts to children in past centuries) was unknown in Italy. The bony, ragged old lady was much nearer in spirit to the poverty of Jesus, and was the only gift-giver for children. The gifts she delivered were reminders of the gifts that on that same night the Magi following the star had offered to the Divine Child, born in a poor manger in Bethlehem.
In the pre-Christian calendar solstice rites used to celebrate the cycle of the sun, and were slowly merged with the cycle of the life of man and the generations, following one another. This eternal cycle was represented by symbols to exorcise anxiety. In many cultures the relations between grown-ups and children is based on the observance of rules achieved through the fear of punishments and expectations of reward. To this family of figures belong the ogre and witch, transformed into the more positive and pedagogical figures of Santa Claus and the Befana. As a testimonial of this connection, here is an old Italian lullaby that goes
who will I give this child to
if I give it to the Befana
she will keep him one whole week
if I give it to the Bogey Man
he will keep him one whole year
but if the child goes to sleep
then his mother will him keep"
In the Romagna region Epiphany was a pagan festival when the Ancestors (symbols of a worship of the dead connected to agrarian symbols of fertility) brought a good omen of abundance to the living. From that take origin the Befanotti (representing the ancestors) going from home to home singing the "Pasquella", and also the Befana coming down through the chimneys.
In Abruzzo, as in other Southern regions of Italy, the children's most beloved festivity was called Pasquetta, possibly to remind of the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem to homage the Child Jesus, or for the songs and music in the streets accompanied by tambourines, cymbals and flutes, especially before the mansions of the rich, requesting gifts and food.
Widespread in Abruzzo is the worship of little statues of Child Jesus. There is a beautiful tradition in Lama dei Peligni on the evening of the Epiphany. The villagers, especially the children, go to the church to kiss the statue of Gesù Bambino, kept inside a precious silver urn, and dressed in apparel and with a head cover of the year 1759.
If an olive tree leaf, thrown into the fire, took long to burn it was a sign that the wish would be fulfilled, if instead it burned quickly, the opposite. Girls (see Finamore in "Credenze, usi e costumi abruzzesi") used to pray before going to bed wishing for their future bridegroom to come into their dreams. And under their pillow they placed three broad beans: one full, one without peel, the other half-peeled. Then in the morning they caught one: the full one meant the groom would be rich, the unpeeled one he would be poor, the half-peeled one something in the middle.
On the morning of January 6th sacristans would go from house to house leaving the "Bboffe water", which was kept for devotion or used to sprinkle the rooms to keep witches away.
Nowadays there is an amusing, non-conventional re-evaluation of the Befana:
"The Befana is Alternative because:
1- She is Ecological, since she travels on a broom
2- She is an Animalist, since she does not exploit poor reindeer
3- She is a Proletarian, since she dresses in non-fashionable clothes
4- She is a Justice Bearer, since she rewards only deserving ones
5- She is Tolerant, since her punishments are very mild, just ashes and coal
6- She is not Exacting, since in exchange for all her work she only takes some bread soaked in wine or milk."