Originally written on January 6, 2019 – updated 2023
Ever wonder who is the witch-like woman with a broomstick that you see in Christmas markets around Italy? This is La Befana, an Italian Christmas tradition, long before Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) made his way into the italian culture. According to the most sources, the myth of La Befana goes back to the 13th century.
In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to St Nicholas or Santa Claus (about Christmas traditions, folklore and characters you can read our articles in “Advent Calendar” section on our site!)
A popular belief is that the name “Befana” come from the Feast of Epiphany, in Italian: Festa dell’Epifania. “Epifania” is a Latin word with Greek origins meaning “manifestation of the divinity.”
All we know that Epiphany is the religious celebration following Christmas of the arrival of the Three Magi to present their precious gifts to the Baby Jesus.
Others suggest that Befana is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strenia.
In popular folklore Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. Being a good housekeeper, some people say she will sweep the floor before she leaves, and the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year.
According to the popular Christian legend, Befana was approached by the biblical magi, also known as the Three Wise Men (or the three kings) a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus.
The Magi stopped along their long journey, knocking on the door of an old woman to ask directions to Bethlehem and to rest. She received them and offer them refreshment and, like any good Italian “casalinga” (housewife) inquired of their journey.
They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know.
So, they explained that they were following a star because a new king was born, a baby that would be the savior, and so they were making this long journey to pay homage and offer gifts to the new-born king. They asked her if she would like to accompany them, but she refused, saying she had too much house work to do.
The Magi departed, but while she was sweeping her floor, the old woman change her decision and decided she wanted to go along and see this baby king. She gathered together some sweets as a gift and ran out after them, even though the Magi were long gone.
She went along the journey, following the star they indicated and leaving sweets at every child’s door hoping to find the baby Jesus.
Still today on the night between 5 and 6 January she continues her search, broom in hand, handkerchief on her head, filling socks with sweets and toys.
Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return: she would be the mother of every child in Italy.
A more modern infusion into the tradition is that she leaves coal for mischievous children, adopted from Santa Claus!
Another recent version is to give her a witch’s cap, but she was a casalinga, a “housewife”, not a “strega”, a witch.
Many renditions of her are of an ugly old woman with a kerchief, hooked knotty nose with a wart, and patchworked dress. She is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney.
However, she should be remembered as a poor old woman whose broom is her curse, the reason she missed out on the chance to kneel before the baby Jesus.
In Italy exist also a very popular children’s song chanted in her honor while awaiting Befana:
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana
viva viva La Befana.
The Befana comes at night
with worn-out shoes
with a Roman-style cap
long live La Befana!
Another version is given in a poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana.
The English translation is:
Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!