Do you know a lot of old witches flying astride a broomstick with an angelic smile instead of typical wickedness? Her name is Befana. She is an old Italian lady, who gave her name to befanini.
Epiphany in Italy
The biblical date of Epiphany is January 6, but since that day is not a holiday, it is typically celebrated on the first Sunday after January 1. The date is variable. Every year it takes place on the first Sunday of January, unless that Sunday falls on New Year’s Day, in which case, Epiphany will be held on the second Sunday in January.
Epiphany has a different symbolic meaning depending on the churches. For the Roman Catholic Church, Epiphany celebrates the visit of the three Kings (Magi), Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar, who came to bring gifts to the infant Jesus.
The Orthodox Church commemorates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and the manifestation of the Divine Trinity, which is the etymological sense of the word Epiphany since the word comes from the Greek which means “appearance” or “manifestation”.
Finally, for the Armenian Apostolic Church, January 6 is one of the most important holidays because it celebrates the nativity. Moreover, only the Armenian Christians have kept a single holiday and therefore also celebrate Christmas on that same day.
Who is Befana?
In Italian, Befana is both the name of the feast of Epiphany and the name of a very good witch.
Befana, formerly called Stria (hag or witch) is the name of an old peasant lady. She had lost her husband, she had never had a child, and she lived in a tiny house on the village square. Since she was alone and she was a little bored, she often looked at what was happening outside.
Legend has it that she met the Wise Kings one day as they were laden with gifts for the infant Jesus on the way to Bethlehem.
They offered her to follow them but she refused only to regret a few hours later. She then filled a bag of cookies and dried fruits and went to look for them. But she never found the Magi, despite her relentless search. This is also why Befana is always represented with torn and worn shoes.
After failing to find the baby Jesus, she then decided to offer the presents she had planned for him to all the children she met.
Since that day, she has been full of remorse and been moving astride her broomstick from house to house giving sweets to the children in the hope that one of them would be baby Jesus.
This is during the night of January 5 to 6 that Befana is expected to stop by in Italy.
Italian children leave large woolen socks hanging from the fireplace where Befana will deposit gifts and sweets for good children who are asleep, and for those who are not, she will deposit coal. Yes, coal ! This is where this other Italian specialty served during Epiphany comes from: Carbone dolce della Befana (sweet coal of Befana).
- 4 cups flour
- 14 tablespoons unsalted butter , soft
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ cup milk
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 5 eggs
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons rum
- Small multicolored sprinkles
- Mix the eggs and sugar until frothy.
- Add the butter, flour, milk, baking powder, salt, lemon zest and rum (optional).
- Mix all the ingredients to obtain a smooth dough.
- Let stand 45 minutes in the refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 350F/180C.
Spread the dough with a rolling pin to about 1/3 inch (4mm) and cut into various shapes using cookie cutters.
- Place the cookies on a buttered and floured baking sheet or lined with parchment paper and brush them with egg yolk.
- Sprinkle with sugar sprinkles.
- Bake for about 15 minutes.
- Monitor the color of befanini as they must not be too dark.