Befana: history, traditions and typical dishes – Italian Cuisine

Befana: history, traditions and typical dishes


He arrives with his broom and gives sweets to the good children and coal to the bad ones. The history of the Befana and the traditions linked to this figure

"There hag he comes at night with his shoes all broken . Or: "Theepiphany all parties take away . There are many proverbs and idioms handed down over time and linked to the feast of January 6. The last of the Christmas period, with many meanings and symbols, typical recipes and above all with many desserts surprises for the little ones.

Between sacred and profane

According to the Christian religion, Epiphany is the day on which the three Magi kings, coming from the East, as the second Gospel reports Matteo, following a star they managed to reach Bethlehem, in the manger where he was born Jesus to honor him with gods gifts. It is no coincidence that the word Epiphany derives from the Greek "Manifestation" and Befana is none other than one corruption lexical of this term. But January 6 is actually an important date since the times of pre-Christian antiquity. The ancients Romans, for example, on this day they celebrated the beginning of the year with celebrations dedicated to the god Janus and to the goddess Strenia, while at the time of the emperor Aureliano from December 25 (feast of the sun) until the twelfth day following that date a particular practice was introduced: to burn an oak trunk continuously since from coal product could have obtained benefits in terms of luck for the following year. Furthermore, always in ancient times, it was believed that in the twelve nights preceding January 6 the goddess Diana, flying in the sky together with other female figures, he could make the soil more fertile and more fruitful. It is therefore evident that the origins of these holidays, and especially of the Befana, the great secular protagonist of the Epiphany, are truly ancient.

From gods to witches

With the Roman church's condemnations of pagan rites, the previously celebrated female image began to take on another form. And from the divinities we passed to witches. Long skirt, apron with pockets, shawl, worn shoes, handkerchief in the head, a physical aspect that is anything but pleasant and inevitable broom: soon the iconography of the Befana as we know it today took over, also favored by the hostile climate of Middle Ages towards certain pagan representations. Yet there are also those who speak of a relationship with Saint Lucia, the saint of light, illumination and therefore of the "manifestation", or even of a legend linked to the Christian origin of this holiday. According to this version, the figure of the Befana could in fact be inspired by one old lady to which the three Magi would have turned for information on the road to Bethlehem. The woman in question, however, would have refused to help them, soon regretting it: the next day, realizing the missed opportunity to see Jesus, the old woman tried to follow the Magi but was no longer able to find the baby. And for this reason every year, on January 6, he goes to all the houses to bring gifts to children.

The stocking, the coal and the exchange of gifts

Whatever the true story of the Befana is, what is certain is that it is a figure closely linked to tradition Italian, despite some assonance with those of Celtic and Germanic origin. Suffice it to say that this word, used to mean a female puppet exhibited on the night of the Epiphany, was already widespread in the popular dialect of the fourteenth century, especially in Tuscany It is in the Lazio northern. Gruff character and, in some ways, a representation of the old year, ready to sacrifice itself to revive a new period of prosperity, the Befana over time has become a sort of Grandmother who rewards good children with gifts, sweets And treats (formerly also tangerines and fruit) and punishes the bad ones with charcoal. The dreaded charcoal which, however, can also become edible and a very simple dessert to prepare. But why on the night of the Befana there is the tradition of socks? Again there are several theories. One of these is inspired by a legend according to which Numa Pompilius, one of the famous seven kings of Rome, used to hang during the period of solstice in winter a sock in a cave to receive gifts from a nymph. However, this is only a hypothesis. And it doesn't matter: today the Befana continues to be awaited by everyone, even by adults (who, however, tend to exchange gifts that are less demanding than those of Christmas) and always remembering to keep alive the tradition of the stocking to be filled.

Befana from north to south

But what are the dishes always linked to this holiday? In almost all regions there are traditional recipes that continue to live, especially with regard to desserts. In Tuscany, for example, they prepare for the occasion i horses di Siena, soft biscuits with water, sugar, honey, candied fruit, anise, nuts and yeast, while in Versilia there are so-called befanini, citrus-based shortbread biscuits e rum, covered with colored grain. In Varese January 6 rhymes with pinsa, a polenta pizza prepared with corn flour and dried fruit, while in Liguria there are the anicini (aniseed biscuits), in Abruzzo the pepatelli (similar to cantucci, but based on black pepper, honey, flour, cocoa, almonds and orange peel) while in Puglia you go by purcidduzzi from Salento at cartellate from Bari. In Campania, finally, the arrival of the Befana corresponds with the preparation of the prima pastiera of the year.

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