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Befana 101

A Primer On The End-Of-Holiday Holiday

Have you been wondering why all the Italians in your rolodex still aren’t returning your calls by the 5th of January? No, they’re not ignoring you. It’s because the holidays still aren’t finished over here. If you thought that when day broke on New Years morning we swept up all the glitter and got on with our lives you would be sorely mistaken — there’s still celebrating to do! The actual-final-very-last-on-the-list holiday is the 6th of January. Most of the world celebrates the holiday as Epiphany, or the twelfth day of Christmas. In Italy (like most things the Italians do) it’s done a little differently.

Over here, the holiday is known as Befana. And unlike Epiphany, a customarily subdued event celebrating the end of the Christian holidays, Befana is a brash and brawny character — kind of a mashup between Santa Claus and one of Macbeth’s three witches. She flies in on her broomstick the evening of January 5th to leave stockings full of candy for good little bambini — and coal for the bad ones. Sounds familiar, right? Some even say she uses her trusty broom to sweep up after herself when she leaves, but not after downing the customary cup of wine and plate of treats left out to coax her into handing over some sweets.

Most families have their own traditions for celebrating Befana: some have their ugliest uncle don witch’s garb to spook the little ones into behaving well in return for candy (an excellent trade-off), others take part in town centre celebrations like markets or parties. At the Missoni household, though, it’s much more subdued: “When my children were small, I used put coloured pencils or little, useful gifts out for them,” Angela Missoni tells us, “I wanted to give them something more practical, after all of the toys were handed out at Christmas.” Always the Creative Director, Missoni opts for small wrapped presents instead of the classic stockings. “I always dedicate a corner of the room for each person,” she says, “I organise the presents in little scenes for the morning.” When the family wakes up small piles of brightly wrapped packages are dotted throughout the room for kids to find — a distinctly Missoni twist to the Befana tradition. And nobody has to dress up in witch’s drag.

So, if you ever find yourself over in Italy on the 6th of January, don’t be alarmed when a coven of Christmassy witches goes sweeping through your city. You might find some sweets in your stockings — so behave!