The term Ἐπιφάνεια was used by the Greeks to indicate the action or manifestation of a deity; today with Epiphany (January 6th) is celebrated the first manifestation of the divinity of Jesus to all humanity, with the solemn visit and the ‘offer of highly significant gifts and the adoration of the Magi (the Three Wise Men).
The event is of fundamental importance to the Christian tradition, and it has been reflected in numerous works of art.
In many cultures the celebration of the Epiphany is accompanied by symbols and traditions of very ancient derivation (solar cults) mixed with more recent influences: Among Those there is the Befana!
In Italian folklore, the Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to Sinterklaas or Santa Claus.The character may have originated in central Italy, then spread as a tradition to the rest of Italy.
In popular folklore Befana is prtrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick, who visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many rural parts of Italy, 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.
Christian legend had it that Befana was approached by the biblical Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men (or the three kings) a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.
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