For many, the festive season is brought to a close in the first few days of January, with Christmas lights taken down and put away for next year, and the last of the turkey leftovers used up as the nation heads back to work. However, in some cultures the Christmas period is not over until after the Twelfth Night celebrations on January 5th and the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th.
Two countries in particular where the Catholic Christian calendar ensures a prolonged season of merriment are Spain and Italy. The Spanish celebrate King’s Day, Día de Los Reyes, on January 6th and for many this is as big a celebration as Christmas itself. Similarly, in Italia the Feast of the Epiphany or, Festa dell'Epifania, and the tradition of La Befana mark the day when the Wise Men presented their gifts to the baby Jesus, as the Christmas story goes. The evening of the 5th January is a time when children receive gifts, left at night as they sleep, which are opened on the 6th as part of the Epiphany celebrations.
Unlike some of the more modern Christmas traditions celebrated today across the globe, the story of La Befana can be dated back to the 13th century in Italy making it one of the most deeply rooted cultural customs. Not your typical jolly Christmas figure, Befana is often depicted as a witch-like woman, somewhat haggard in appearance, who rides on a broom to deliver gifts to children across the country on Twelfth Night.
According to legend, the three Wise Men sought hospitality from Befana on their journey to find the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The woman welcomed the Kings into her home and offered them shelter and when they departed they invited her to join them on their quest. Befana refused, as she had too much housework to do, though she later changed her mind and set out to join them, taking gifts of her own for the baby. However, she never managed to catch up with the Wise Men and she never found the baby Jesus to deliver her gifts. To this day it is said that Befana still flies around on the eve before Epiphany searching for the holy child. On this journey, she leaves toys and sweets for all of the good children in Italy.
Despite her witch-like appearance, Befana is beloved by Italian children and they await her arrival with excitement. In many households it is custom to leave out a small glass of wine and a little food for Befana, to fuel her long night of work. The old woman is said to enter houses through the chimney, similar to Father Christmas, and she is often shown to be covered in soot - though she uses her broom to sweep up any mess created by her entrance!
On the 6th January, the day of the Epiphany, it is customary to share a feast with family and friends. Often sweet treats, dolce, are enjoyed, in the North pandoro and panettone are especially popular. It is also a ritual, shared by many, to serve up a Focaccia della Befana for the occasion; unlike normal focaccia, this is a sweet bread dotted with morsels of candied fruit. The focaccia would traditionally be prepared with a bean nestled somewhere inside it, a symbol of health and fertility, and the person who found this in their piece would be blessed with a year of good fortune! Now it is more typical to bury a coin or a ring inside the focaccia, as a symbol of luck for the year ahead.
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