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The Befana with sweet coal and candy on wooden background. Italian Epiphany day tradition (vetre/Adobe Stock)

Babbo Natale And Befana: The Italian Santa Claus Duo

Christmas and Epiphany are undoubtedly two of the most popular holidays for Italian children. Children love to be told fantastic stories and excitedly await the arrival of Babbo Natale and the Befana. Thanks to a particularly effective advertising campaign, the figure of Babbo Natale has become firmly established in the popular imagination on the Italian peninsula, especially in the cold regions of the north. On the morning of December 25, the luckiest children will joyfully open the gifts deposited under the tree at night - according to the story told by the adults - by this corpulent and benign benefactor, with a long and thick white beard, dressed in a red jacket, trousers and hat, trimmed with white fur, flying through the night sky on Christmas Eve, driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer and carrying sacks full of gifts.

Antique illustration by Thomas Nast who, together with Clement Clarke Moore , helped create the modern image of Santa Claus (1881) (Public Domain)

However, in the sunnier and warmer south of Italy the Befana is preferred to him. This figure is traditionally represented as a frail and ugly old woman, dressed in patched clothes, with small glasses on her hooked nose and a big handkerchief on her head or a big woolen scarf knotted under her chin. Along with this image there is another one, which has spread in recent times: she wears a large black cone-shaped hat on her head. An old nursery rhyme (there are several variants) describes her as follows: La Befana vien di notte/con le scarpe tutte rotte/con le toppe alla sottana:/Viva viva la Befana! (The Befana arrives at night/with her broken shoes /with the patches on her skirt:/ hurray hurray, the Befana!)

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