- Holidays and Celebrations
La Befana Brings Stockings to Italian Children
Italian Santa Has a Helper
Every Christmas Eve, Santa stops at Italian homes, if children have been good of course.
But Italian children enjoy gifts from another gift bearer, a bad looking, quite ugly as a matter of fact, old lady, that fills their stockings on the Epiphany.
The night between January 5 and 6, riding a broom, under the weight of a huge bag full of candies and gifts, with also a good dose of coals, La Befana flies over the roofs, gets in the homes through the chimneys and fills stockings for children.
How Italians Celebrate the Festival of La Befana - Video
La Befana - Origins of Her Tradition
The word Befana is a deformation of Epiphany, from the Greek “Tà epiphaneia”, manifestation of the God.
In the Christian tradition, the Epiphany is a celebration of the visit of the Three Kings, or Magi, to baby Jesus, and their gifts for him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
However, La Befana has origins that go back for centuries, tied to the pagan celebration of the beginning of a new year. The beginning of January has always been a time of celebration in the rural communities. In January winter is over (winter solstice is around 21-22 December) and it is time to resume work on the fields to prepare for the new year’s crop.
In 336 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine started to celebrate Christmas on December 25, and the date was chosen because that was the day the pagans celebrated the winter solstice and the Roman god Saturn. It was also the time when the Jewish celebrated Hanukkah.
Back then, on the 12th night after Christmas, farmers thought they could see Diana, goddess of fertility, fly over the fields just sowed for the new growing season.
The Catholic Church condemned this belief as evil, and this stimulated the creation of stories about witches flying on their broom between the old and the New Year.
With time, after the XVI century, this belief has developed into the story of La Befana, a good old lady that brings gifts on the twelfth night after Christmas.
The Legend of La Befana and the Magi
A common legend about how La Befana came to be, tells about an old lady that lived when Jesus was born. The Three Kings, on their journey from the East to welcome baby Jesus, met the lady and asked her for shelter.
When they departed, the Kings asked the old lady to join them in bringing the gifts to the baby, but she was too busy cleaning and sweeping and she refused to follow them.
Later she regretted staying, and she tried to catch up with the Kings, but she couldn't. Since then she has been flying every year the knight between January 5 and 6, still looking for baby Jesus, and bringing gifts to all good children, in the hope that one of them might be Jesus.
The Burning of The Old Lady – Bruciare La Vecchia
In rural areas of Italy the evening before the epiphany takes place the traditional burning of La Befana. High pyres of wood and straw, with on top a figure of the Befana, or old lady, are lit.
The old lady burning represents the old year gone, and the popping sound of the fire are the bad spirits escaping.
People would gather around the fire, dance and sing, eat, and celebrate together. Much attention was given to where the smoke from the pyre went, for this would foresee how the next growing season would be.
This tradition is still in place in many regions, even though the rural superstitions and meanings have largely been lost.
The Typical Gifts From La Befana
The traditional gifts that La Befana left in children’s stockings were oranges, nuts, and small sweets. For children that had been bad she would leave lumps of coal.
The children leave nearby a fruit or a cookie, and something to drink, could be milk or even some wine. La Befana always appreciates finding good snacks.
While in the past the children would hang their own socks on the mantelpiece on the night of January 5, and find them filled the morning after, the modern Befana buys pre-filled fancy stockings at stores.
While long ago La Befana used to bring real coal to the children that misbehaved (and every one managed to get some coal among the candies), now she brings sugary black blocks that look exactly like coal, but are deliciously sweet to eat nevertheless.
Many families don’t have a fireplace, but this does not stop the good old lady from getting to their children. Somehow she manages into the house, and leaves the stockings, often she sneaks silently into the bedrooms of sleeping children and leaves her gifts on their bed.
Befana's Italian Nursery Rhyme
"La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello e la sottana
viene viene la Befana.
Lascia un dono sul camino...
quando va fa un bell'inchino."
"La Befana comes at night
With shoes all broken
With a hat and a skirt
comes comes la Befana.
She leaves a present on the hearth...
When she goes she nicely bows."
Scenes from the traditional burning of La Befana
© 2012 Robie Benve