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La Befana: The Italian Christmas Witch

Updated on September 5, 2014

Meet the Old Befana of Italian Christmas tradition

Most people in the English speaking world strictly associate witches with Halloween. In our minds, they are dark clad figures with flying brooms, ragged clothing, craggy features, and perhaps, a black cat for company.As far as I know, Italy is the only country in the world where witches are also closely linked to the Christmas tradition. And not just witches in general - a specific witch who goes by the name of la Befana. Much like Santa Claus, she is said to visit the houses of children on the night of January 5th, or the Eve of Epiphany, leaving sweets, nuts and fruit in the stockings of the good and black coal, onions and garlic in those of the naughty.In this article, I would like to share the unique Italian Christmas tradition of La Befana with you. You will learn about the history and legends surrounding la Befana, her hometown, and how she is celebrated across Italy. I do hope you enjoy your visit!

By ho visto nina volare via Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Ele G.
Photo courtesy of Ele G.

Who is La Befana?

The history behind the Christmas Witch of Italy

La Befana is an ugly old witch who flies around Italy on the Eve of Epiphany (January 5th) bringing sweets and gifts to good children and coal, onion and garlic to naughty children. She wears a patched skirt and an old shawl. Her hair is unkempt and scraggly, and it is more than obvious that she has not been to the dentist in many a year. Though she has a revolting appearance, she is actually a kind witch, only punishing children who have misbehaved throughout the year.The history behind La Befana is even more twisted than the haggard bristles of her broomstick.Many historians credit her existence to the Roman goddess Strina, who bestowed gifts called strenae. It is thought that the name Befana could be derived from this word for 'gifts'.A more widely held belief is that her origins come from the Feast of Epiphany, as the words epiphany and befana are etymologically very similar. Moreover, the feast is held on January 6th, the day after La Befana visits the children of Italy on her broomstick.Furthermore, the birth of La Befana is thought to also have pagan origins. She has been connected to Nicnevin, the Scottish Queen of the Fairies, and to even more ancient Neolithic traditions.The reality is that nobody really knows how the Befana tradition was born. All we know for sure is that it has a steadfast place in the celebration of Christmas in modern day Italy.

Source: Wikipedia - BefanaPhoto courtesy of Ele G. on Flickr

The Legend of La Befana

Why La Befana visits the children of Italy every Eve of Epiphany

The original legend of La Befana, as with most ancient folk tales, has split into a number of versions, all of which share a common theme: an old housekeeper who goes on the futile search for the baby Jesus after refusing to join the Magi (Three Wise Men) on their journey. The most popular version goes as follows...

There once was an old woman named la Befana. She was renowned as the best housekeeper in the village. One day, she is visited by the Three Wise Men (the Magi) who are on a journey to find the Son of God. They ask her if she knows the way, but she does not. Being a kind woman, she invites the Magi to stay in her home for the night. Grateful for her kindness, they ask la Befana to accompany them on their journey, but she refuses, saying that she has too much work to do. After her guests leave, she has a change of heart, packs a number of gifts and sweets for baby Jesus, and heads out to follow the Magi. Sadly, she never finds the Magi nor the baby Jesus. To this day, she continues to search for the Son of God, leaving gifts for children in her path. She does this because she knows Jesus lives in the hearts of all children.

The Befana Festival in Urbania

How the people of Le Marche celebrate la Befana's arrival

In just the past decade, the town of Urbania in the Marche region of Italy has become the official home of la Befana. In this town, they have their own special way of celebrating the Day of Epiphany. Hundreds of men and women dress up as the old Christmas witch, flooding the streets and hanging from bell towers in the main square to entertain the 30,000-50,000 visitors and children. Amongst the many befanas is the 'real' Befana, who invites children to sit on her lap and make a special request. Requests range from world peace to the simple plea not to receive a piece of coal in one's stocking. For all their similarities, you could almost call la Befana the St. Nicholas of Italy!

Source: Take Flight With Italy's Holiday Witch (Spiegel Online)Photo courtesy of Beatrice via Wikimedia Commons

La Befana Poem - A popular poem about La Befana known across Italy

La Befana Poem
La Befana Poem

La Befana Trullala' - Gianni Morandi - The most well-known song about la Befana

In 1978, famous Italian singer Gianni Morandi transformed the above poem into a popular song about la Befana.

Rialto Bridge
Rialto Bridge

The Befane Races (La Regatta delle Befane)

When la Befana isn't on a broom, she's rowing in Venice!

There are fewer things more amusing to watch than five ageing Italian gentlemen dressed up as old hags desperately trying to win a mascareta boat race along the Grand Canal in Venice.The Befana Races (or La Regatta delle Befane in Italian) is a yearly event held on the Day of Epiphany. Thousands of locals and tourists line up along the canals to see the short sprint between the curve in the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge take place. There is only one main rule the rowers must follow: you must be dressed up in la Befana garb. What's more, since the canal isn't very wide, only the five best rowers may take part.Besides the race, visitors can also look forward to free drinks and candies, market stalls, and of course, the stunning views of Venice.

Source: The Befana, racing | Venice: I am not making this upPhoto courtesy of Arian Zwegers on Flickr

Christmas Befana Ornament Figurine - The only Befana ornament on Amazon!

 

Had you ever heard of La Befana before visiting this page? - Please let us know you stopped by!

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Yes, I knew the story of La Befana. I have shared her story with many a child in my 30 years of teaching Sunday School. Thanks for the pictures. La Befana at Disney World is awesome!

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 4 years ago

      *Indeed (oops)

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 4 years ago

      Indded, I also have a Little Christmas Lens; I really enjoyed your La Befana Lens, well done.

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 4 years ago

      No, but I love learning new traditions from around the world. Thanks!

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 4 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      I never heard of La Befana, it's an interesting Christmas folk tale from Italy!

    • LisaDH profile image

      LisaDH 5 years ago

      I'd never heard of La Befana. Christmas traditions around the world are so fascinating!

    • marigoldina profile image
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      Heather B 5 years ago

      @grannysage: Thanks Diane, I'll do just that! Doing so will allow me to update as the Christmas season approaches. :-)

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      grannysage 5 years ago

      I would suggest you Google La Befana and Raven Grimassi. He has a lot of information about the ancient roots of the La Befana legend. There is also a book called House Without A Door that is dedicated to the legend of the Befana,