Here at DDD HQ we’re busy building up to a gourmet Christmas holiday, dusting off secret family recipes and making plans for vast baked hams. However, while children across Britain struggle to sleep on Christmas Eve, things in Italy are rather different.
The friends and farmers that we visit on our Italian Gourmet Weekends know about Father Christmas, though they call him Babbo Natale, but traditionally, their presents wouldn’t arrive with him. Instead, they’d appear on Epiphany (the 6th of January), delivered by a friendly witch, La Befana.
Legend tells that La Befana was a proud housekeeper, who had sadly lost her own child. One day the wise men stopped at her tumbledown hut and asked directions to the manger. She pointed them in the right direction, and they urged her to join them. La Befana refused, saying she was too busy with her housework to join them. Later she changed her mind and set off behind the wise men, following the Christmas star and bearing gifts for the Baby Jesus. Sadly, La Befana lost her way, and to this day, flies around on her broomstick, searching for Baby Jesus and bringing gifts to the children of Italy.
Before bedtime on the 5th of January Italian children will hang out their stockings, or leave out their shoes, with a plate of food and wine for La Befana. Waking in the morning they’ll know she’s been when the food is gone and just a sooty handprint on the plate remains. Good children get sweeties and chocolates, and those who misbehaved, a lump of coal. Though if La Befana’s feeling kindly the coal might just be a candy made with black sugar and disguised as coal…