This Europe: With her hook nose and broomstick, Befana scares and thrills Italy's children on Epiphany

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The Independent Online

Years ago, a modernising Italian government tried to abolish the national holiday of Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, but the combined forces of piety and sloth were not having it. In the teeth of public outrage, the national day was restored.

Years ago, a modernising Italian government tried to abolish the national holiday of Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, but the combined forces of piety and sloth were not having it. In the teeth of public outrage, the national day was restored.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, may have scant respect for the "complicated wisdom" of the Magi, but for Italians, Christmas would not be complete without that camel-borne trek to see the Christ Child. Oddly, in Italian folk tradition, it is not the wise men who matter, but someone they met on the way.

The story has it that en route to the stable, the Magi asked an old woman for shelter. She turned them away, but was struck by remorse, and has since been roaming the earth on her broomstick, looking for the baby Jesus.

In a spirit of penance for her bad manners, the witch Befana, as she is known, drops down Italian chimneys, depositing gifts for good children and bits of coal for the bad on Epiphany eve?

Unlike idiotic, beaming Father Christmas, who arrived in Italy only after the Second World War, Befana has the complexity of a figure that has emerged unsimplified from the pagan mists: doing good, yet frightening, with her hook nose and broomstick; able to remove bad luck, yet suspected of bringing bad.

Greedy children hang out their stockings hoping for a final Christmas jackpot, but in some places her effigy is burned on 5 January as a symbol of barren winter, to usher in the spring.

From such a dodgy customer, children would be wise not to expect too much. When Italian police intercepted 10,000 spurious, badly made toys and video games at the weekend on the Naples-Rome railway line, the only suspect was Befana.

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