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Pagan witches and Mussolini: Why Italy’s Epiphany holiday has a curious history

Italy celebrates Befana on January 6th, a holiday that rivals Christmas for many Italians. But how did this staunchly Catholic nation come to worship a pagan witch?

Pagan witches and Mussolini: Why Italy's Epiphany holiday has a curious history
Women dress up for the annual Befana procession in Viterbo, Italy. The January 6th Epiphany holiday is celebrated across Italy - but where did it come from? (Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP)

On January 6th Italians celebrate La Befana, an ugly witch with a crooked nose, a huge chin wart, hunchback and torn shoes who flies the night skies on a broom, rewarding or punishing kids depending on how they’ve behaved. 

In the morning, Italian children rush to the fireplace to see what La Befana has left in their stockings: sweets and chocolates if they’ve been good, often also money, or ‘charcoal’ (black sugar lumps) if naughty. 

READ ALSO: How to make the most of Italy’s public holidays in 2023

It’s a deeply felt, nationalist holiday. In Piedmont, Befana scarecrows are burned to bless the new year; in Lazio locals do the ‘Befana Dive’, a swim in the cold sea, while women jokingly call each other ‘Befana’ and dress up as witches. In many villages, city piazzas and alleys there are Befana-themed masked parades. 

But how did such a Catholic nation come to worship a pagan witch? 

Its origins date back to Ancient Roman times, when it was real party. Families and friends would get together at the taberna (‘tavern’) to feast, and would also buy cakes to bring to other people’s homes as gifts.

“According to the beliefs of our Roman ancestors, on the night of January 6th female deities flew over the cultivated fields to boost the soil’s fertility and yield,” explains historian and archaeologist Giorgio Franchetti, author of several books on the Ancient Romans.

“Such goddesses had many different names. Initially it was Diana, who is not only the goddess of hunting but also of vegetation and nature, then there was Satia (deity of satiety) and Abundia (goddess of abundance), all beautiful women who physically had nothing in common with the old granny stereotype embodied by modern Befana.”

People dress up as witches during an Epiphany parade – but the original ‘Befana’ was said to be an attractive young female deity. (Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP)

The rural nature of the flying sorceresses was linked to the nocturnal setting during which these fertility rituals were carried out, with a shining moon and in the countryside and woods, which are all elements sacred to Diana. 

Similarly, La Befana lands on roofs at night and slides down the chimney, but today she’s a domestic, homey-looking character who’s no longer confined to rural areas. 

“January 6th was a special day for the Ancient Romans as it ended the 12-day festivity period that followed December 25th, when they celebrated the birth in a cave of God Mithras whose story resembles that of Jesus Christ,” says Franchetti.

“It was also the day of the Sol Invictus, the ‘invincible sun’, for December 25th marked the end of the dark winter days that started to become brighter and longer. 

“This entire period celebrated the beginning of a new year, of prosperity and welcomed the upcoming spring.”

In Italy Epiphany is celebrated with the tradition of La Befana, an old woman, bringing presents to children during the night of January 5th. (Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP)

When Christianity and the Church came along, these young sexy flying pagan goddesses were condemned and banned from worship. No longer accepted as bringers of good omen and prosperity, they were turned into outcast, terrifying witches and classified as ‘evil’. 

They became old, freakish carriers of ill-omen, and thus also of charcoal, which is the symbol of the bonfire on which alleged witches were later burnt at the stake by the Holy Inquisition. 

“The church tried to obliterate all pre-Christian rituals and festivities by overlapping these with the celebration of the Christian Epiphany, which is when the three wise men meet baby Jesus bearing gifts”, says Franchetti.

Centuries later La Befana found her greatest fan in Mussolini, who promoted her as an all-Italian, patriotic female alternative to the foreign Father Christmas. 

Mussolini had a specific reason for making her the Christmas queen. He banned all foreign-sounding and English-related words and traditions, and saw Santa Claus as an outsider to Italian culture. 

The tyrant thus substituted the ‘imported’, Anglo-Saxon Father Christmas with the Italian Befana, who has been roaming the night skies since the dawn of time. 

A street seller holds a Befana doll at a market in Rome’s Piazza Navona. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

In 1928 Mussolini, with the help of the regime’s propaganda, established Epifania as a national holiday. It was called La Befana Romana, or La Befana Fascista.

“It was typical of the regime to appropriate pagan and Roman myths or symbols as means of glorification and power”, says Franchetti.

Inspired by the ideal of great ancient Rome, Mussolini quite cleverly adapted and adopted pagan flying goddesses to his own ends. 

Italian elders still recall when their mothers and grandmothers during the fascist regime would gather piles of old clothes, socks and toys to give to the poor and to homeless orphans.

“It was part of the fascist regime’s pro-welfare propaganda. My mom would go through our wardrobe telling us to help her gather what we no longer needed so as to obey the call from authorities prompting families to be generous to those in need”, recalls 95-year-old Giulio Verde, a Roman pensioner. 

“On TV and radio the regime appealed to rich people in particular to offer food and old clothes to the poor and homeless through national welfare campaigns led by juvenile associations that hailed fascism’s social mission and honored Mussolini”, adds Verde.

However, La Befana’s popularity survived fascism and found supporters even after the end of World War II, as she embodied the positive, familiar image of the gift-bearer. Political parties continued using the Befana as a propaganda tool to promote their policies in favor of poor families. 

Italians also adore her because she allows us to stretch the Christmas holidays out until January 6th – and beyond if the festivity happens to fall on a Friday like this year. We have a rhyming phrase to wish her ciao ciao: “…Eh l’Epifania, che tutte le feste si porta via” (and so the epiphany brushes away all festivities).

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The essential guide to Easter in Italy

Easter is an important celebration in Italy, and it’s marked across the country by days off work, processions, and plenty of food. Here’s a rundown of what to expect from ‘Pasqua’.

The essential guide to Easter in Italy

What are the dates?

Easter Sunday (Pasqua in Italy) and Easter Monday (Pasquetta) fall on April 9th and April 10th respectively this year. 

But, while both days are national holidays in Italy, Good Friday (or Venerdì Santo), which falls on April 7th, isn’t. 

READ ALSO: Why is Good Friday not a holiday in Italy?

How does Italy celebrate?

In some areas of the country, especially in the south, religious ceremonies are held as early as the Sunday before Easter.

Nationwide celebrations however generally start on Good Friday, which is when Christians commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Countless Via Crucis (‘Way of the Cross’) processions take place all around the country on the day, with the most popular one being held in Rome on Friday evening. 

Via Crucis in Rome

Thousands of people attend Rome’s ‘Via Crucis’ procession every year. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Celebrations are paused on Sabato Santo (Holy Saturday), which is a day of collective mourning and contrition, only to resume on Easter Sunday, the day of Jesus’s resurrection according to Christian tradition.

After attending morning mass, Italians spend the remainder of Sunday in the company of their families and more immediate relatives, with the lunch-plus-pennichella combo being by far the most popular activity on the day.

Finally, on Monday (known as Pasquetta, or ‘little Easter’), most people venture on a gita fuori porta and enjoy some time together with their closest friends. 

Things to see

Centuries-old processions

While most cities in Italy hold processions to commemorate Jesus’s journey to his own crucifixion (Via Crucis), some events in the centre and south of the boot follow rituals dating as far back as the 9th century AD.

Every year on Good Friday, around 3,000 men from local Catholic societies, each donning a white hood and carrying a torch, march through the streets of Enna, Sicily, shouldering statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

Easter procession in Enna, Sicily

Every year, around 3,000 men dressed in hooded robes march through the streets of Enna, Sicily on Good Friday. Photo by Marcello PATERNOSTRO / AFP

A similar procession unfolds in Chieti, Abruzzo, with hooded figures carrying seven imposing trofei, i.e. items that are reminiscent of the Passion of Christ.

Finally, in the evening of Giovedi Santo (Holy Thursday), a number of bare-footed cross-bearers dressed in black robes walk down the streets of Noicattaro, Puglia in one of the most intense Via Crucis performances in the country.

Passion of Christ re-enactments

Barile, in the southern Basilicata region, holds one of the most unique Easter performances in Italy as the show, which involves over 100 actors, mixes characters from the Bible with local folklore figures such as the gypsy woman and the Moor.

The town of Romagnano Sesia, Piedmont, is also well-known for its Passion of Christ re-enactment, a tradition dating back to 1729. The show is generally spread over four days (from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday) and includes as many as 26 different acts. 

Events in big cities

Celebrations in major cities are generally much less history-imbued than they are in smaller towns and villages. But, traditional events survive in some locations.

Scoppio del Carro in Florence

Florence’s iconic ‘Scoppio del Carro’ (wagon explosion) dates back to 1101 AD. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Italy’s biggest Easter procession will take place in Rome on Good Friday, with thousands of faithful following the Pope from St Peter’s Square to the Colosseum.

Florence will instead hold the iconic Scoppio del Carro on Easter Sunday, with a two-story wagon packed full of fireworks being lit up in the city’s central Piazza Duomo.

What’s on the menu?

Easter lunch generally starts with a primo, whose nature varies greatly from region to region. So, while people in Sicily may have sciusceddu (a meatball and egg soup) as their first course, people in Liguria may start their lunch with a slice of torta pasqualina (a quiche with spinach, eggs and cheese). 

Lamb, the centrepiece of the Easter eating experience in Italy, will be the secondo of choice of most Italian families, with recipes once again varying from region to region, or at times even from family to family. 

READ ALSO: 11 Italian Easter foods you should try at least once

The lamb-based dish is generally accompanied by vegetables, with artichokes being a very popular side in the centre and south of the country.

Finally, no Easter lunch is truly complete without an exceedingly high-calorie dessert, which could be anything from timeless classics such as the colomba pasquale and the Neapolitan pastiera to lesser-known treats such as sanguinaccio dolce (pig’s blood and chocolate pudding) and pan di Ramerino (sweet raisin bread flavoured with rosemary).

What will the weather be like?

Though it’s still too early to say what exactly the weather will be like over the Easter holidays, the latest forecasts indicate that a cold air front moving down from northern Europe will reach Italy on Monday, April 3rd.

This is expected to bring unstable weather and below-average temperatures to the country: likely around 14C in the north and around 17C in the south.

That said, it’s still unclear whether the incoming cold front will linger over the country long enough to negatively impact the Easter holidays.