These are the first few words of a popular Italian nursery rhyme about the Befana, the old woman who delivers gifts to children around Italy on the night between the 5th and the 6th of January.
Old and wrinkly, the Befana wears, traditionally, raggedy clothes and a handkerchief on her head: she wanders from house to house and from town to town carrying a huge sack where she keeps figs, dates and sweets.
On the eve of the Epiphany feast, children hang a sock over the fireplace and find it filled by the Befana the next morning. Just as Santa does, she’s very generous with kids who have been good and have behaved well, while she leaves a lump of coal to those who have been naughty.
She carries a broom -which she uses as a means of transportation just as a witch would- and also uses it to sweep the floors of each house before leaving: to most this carries the symbolic meaning of sweeping away the problems and negative aspects of the old year to start off the new one with a clean slate.
Her origins date back to the birth of Jesus: it is said that the Three Wise Men, on their way to see Baby Jesus, stopped at her house for the night. They asked her to join them in their search for the Lord, but at first she declined because she was too busy sweeping and cleaning her home. Afterwards, though, she had a change of heart and decided to go shower him with gifts: she couldn’t find him and, ever since then, she has been wandering around, giving sweets and presents away to all those children who had been good.
Urbania, a small town in the province of Pesaro and Urbino, is said to be the official home of the Befana: every year a festival in her honor, the Festa Nazionale della Befana, is held and thousands of people flock there to meet this mythical old lady.
FromJanuary 2nd to January 6th 2014, the whole town will be celebrating and the Befana, with her group of helpers will be distributing sweets and presents to the children. The festival, now in its 17th edition, has put Urbania on the map: last year more than 30,000 people showed up for it and even the Mayor recognizes the importance of the old lady by giving her the keys to the city for the five days of the duration of the Festa.
Children and adults alike can pay a visit to the Befana in her wooden home, where she welcomes everyone with a smile, like a friendly grandmother and, just like one, doesn’t let the kids leave without giving them candy or something sweet. Every afternoon, around 3 p.m., the special craft labs in Piazza Mercato and in the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale open their doors to show visitors the ancient arts of homemade ceramic, wool and fabric dyeing and printing on canvas; old crafts that never cease to interest and amaze.
At 5:30 p.m. everyday a very special parade takes place, where the Befana and her helpers showcase the long and amazing sock they have been knitting all year long: the streets of Urbania turn into big, magical “stage” for street performers, fire-eaters and jugglers, while the Befana –despite her age- descends from the church’s bell tower to give away gifts to the children.
As January 6th draws closer, more events animate the festival: some are humanitarian, such as the gala dinner to raise money to help non-profit organizations that operate in Africa; some are more frivolous, such as the meet-and-greet with fairy tale characters such as Snowwhite, Cinderella and Pinocchio in the Piazza del Duomo.
Folk music, market stalls and food and drink vendors complete the offer: for five days Urbania truly has something to offer for everyone. The town is easily reachable by car in around two hours from both Florence and Ancona.