Everywhere in Italy, La Befana, the generous gift giving witch who competes for children’s affection with Santa, flies from home to home on a fantastical broomstick.
In the Tuscan Maremma, she rides a donkey… imagine trying to explain that to your half Australian, half Tuscan children. They’ve seen donkeys, so they know said animal neither flies nor moves particularly fast. Suffice to say they’re suspicious already.
But tradition reigns in my household, and in the Tuscan Maremman, tradition dictates that you leave a cup of coffee for La Befana and some water and hay for her donkey.
You also appreciate the fact that she has travelled through a million dangers, been ambushed by the dead and the evil spirits, and crossed the world where no one sleeps just to bring you presents. No arguments.
While La Befana has lost a certain about of significance since indulgent Italian parents decided their kids could receive gifts from Santa as well, she still symbolises one of the oldest and most important holidays in the country.
When my mother was a little girl in Calabria, the only stocking she got was from La Befana. There was no such thing as Santa Claus! Still, La Befana remains a day to spend with your family, embrace Italian traditions and, unsurprisingly, eat until you explode.
La Befana delivers her gifts on January 6. According to Catholic tradition, it’s the same day the three wise men delivered their gifts to Baby Jesus. It also happens to be the last day of the festive season in Italy!
So if you’re in the Tuscan Maremma on January 6, don’t miss out on these great events:
1. Presepe Vivente
Historic Centre, Porto Ercole, 4.30pm-7pm
A beautiful reenactment of the nativity scene by the locals of Porto Ercole. Easily the most evocative and anticipated event of the day anywhere in the Tuscan Maremma. The Porto Ercolani fight to the death to get the best roles each year!
2. Dicesa La Befana
Castello Aldobrandesco, Arcidosso, 4pm
A fantastic, if somewhat dangerous, annual rite where La Befana climbs down the town’s fortress tower to hand out gifts and sweets to all the children present. Don’t worry about any accidents, the local fire brigade is there to help her if she gets stuck!
3. Canti della Befana (La Befanata)
San Martino sul Fiora, 9pm on Jan 5
For more than 30 years, locals have been dressing up as La Befana, her husband and their musical helpers and travelling from home to home singing traditional and, usually hilarious, songs connected to the holiday. In exchange, the householders donate small, but tasty offerings. At the end of the evening, the singers meet in the main piazza to share their bounty of food and wine with everyone, and dance the night away.
4. Arriva la Befana per per Poggiosolidate
Sala Parrocchiale, Poggio Murella, from 4pm
I love bingo anywhere and in any form and the Poggioli make it an event the entire community can get involved in. The evening kicks off with stockings for all the children and a kid’s bingo or, as we call it tombola, game, followed by an adult’s bingo (the prizes are bigger and boozer). There will also be a charity auction.
5. Mercato della Befana
Piazza Caribaldi, Castiglione della Pescaia, all day
The last of the Christmas markets with cute stalls selling festive knickknacks, roasted chestnuts and vin brule by the barrel-full.
6. Concerto della Befana
Historic Centre, Massa Marittima, 5.30pm
You wouldn’t expect anything else from Massa Marittima, and lucky, this concert promises to be a fantastic and really enjoyable event for children and adults alike. It always draws a massive crowd and the music is a fun mix of traditional, usually folkloric, songs and more contemporary hits, performed by a collection of local bands.
I’m sad to say that that’s it for the festive season in the Tuscan Maremma, so enjoy it before it ends!