According to tradition, “Befana” is a very old woman who delivers gifts to children flying on a worn-out broomstick on the eve of Epiphany (the night between January 5 and 6). Children leave stockings hanging by the fireplace or near a window that will be filled during the night.
Generally, children who have behaved well throughout the year will receive sweets, chocolates, candies, dried fruits or small toys. Conversely, those who behaved badly will find the socks filled with charcoal or garlic.
The “Befana” is not a beautiful and attractive woman. On the contrary, she is an old woman who is saddened by the aches and pains of age and cold, with few teeth, a wrinkled face and sometimes, but not always, a very prominent nose. To adequately shelter, the Befana wears long skirts, worn and patched in a cheerful way. She wears heavy socks and often an apron. On her hunched shoulders she always wears a heavy wool shawl. She only uses a cloth handkerchief as a headdress and a wool scarf tied under her chin.
In Venice the Feast of the Befana is celebrated in the morning of January 6th with the “Regata delle Befane”. Lagoon boats with rowers disguised as Befana compete along the Grand Canal to the Rialto Bridge, where a giant stocking is on display. At the foot of the bridge, sweets and hot drinks are served to everyone, entertaining the public with music and entertainment.
In the Venetian countryside, on the night of the eve of the Epiphany, bonfires called “panevin” are lit as a wish for a new year of plenty. The flame of “panevin” is a symbol of hope and represents the strength to burn the old and welcome the new. For this reason, the tradition of the bonfire is also called “burn the vecia” (old), the name given to the Befana in Veneto, represented by the puppet of wood and branches that burns, symbolically destroying the misfortunes of the past.
This propitiatory rite is accompanied by the tasting of the “pinza” typical sweet of the feast and “vin brulè” hot drink based on wine, sugar and aromatic spices.
The Epiphany marks the end of the festivities that began with Christmas.