Dates for assembly

6th January 2006 at 00:00
January 6 La Befana. The Christian season of Epiphany celebrating the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus lasts into February: in Italy it is known as "Befana".

Outline script. She is old, wears tattered clothes, is called la Befana and is a kind of good fairy or witch.

Many Italian children believe she visits their homes on the 12th night after the birth of Jesus. If they have been good, she will leave presents of toys or sweets. If they have been naughty, all she leaves is a lump of coal or a heap of dust. So before they go to bed, they hang up a stocking, hoping that next morning they will find more than coal dust.

Tradition tells us that this house-proud woman was sweeping her house when the Wise Men went past, taking their gifts to the infant Jesus. Too busy to pay them any attention, she said she would see them on their return. As they went home another way, she never saw them again. Ever since, she has been trying to make up for this by giving people presents herself.

Often, a grown-up will dress up and pretend to be La Befana. When Italian children see this person they call out, "Ecco la Befana!" ("Here comes la Befana!"). Her name comes from the word "Epiphany" which in turn comes from a Greek word meaning appearance or showing (of the infant Jesus to gentiles or non-Jews).

In Russia, a similar legend is told about an old woman called Baboushka who lived all alone in a forest. The Wise Men visited her on Christmas Eve, also asking her to travel with them to find the new-born king.

She promised to follow the next day but, by then, did not know which way to go. Since then, so the story goes, she too has journeyed through the countryside every Christmas giving presents to children, rather like a "Mother Christmas".

Follow-up

The story of the visit of the Wise Men is told in Matthew's Gospel, chapter 2.

Discuss when Christmas ends. Reference books differ as to the date of Twelfth Night, depending on whether they count Christmas Day or Boxing Day as the first day. Christians used to observe Christmas for 40 days (until February 2).

There is a detailed analysis of the Befana legend at: www.floria-publications.comitalylife_and_customsla_befana.htmlnbsp;and a child-friendly retelling is at: www.zuzu.orgitaly.html

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