Forget Santa Claus: Here in Italy, it’s La Befana who rules the day. Especially when the day is January 6, the Day of the Epiphany.
At first glance, La Befana might seem like a strange person to be at the center of the Italian Christmas holidays, never mind to be the figure who hands out gifts to small children. She is, for lack of a better way to put it, a witch—complete with warts, long nose, and, yes, a broomstick. (She flies around the world on it while she’s distributing her gifts, and, yes, before she leaves a house, she’ll even sweep the floor).
But she’s actually good. On the night of January 5, she slides down chimneys to fill children’s stockings with candy and gifts if they’re good, coal if they’re bad. In return, Italian families leave La Befana a little something, too. No, not milk and gingerbread boys: a glass of wine and some morsels of food. Remember, this is Italy we’re talking about!
According to legend, La Befana got her start at the time of Christ’s birth. There are a few versions of the story, but the most common is that the three Magi asked the old woman for directions to the scene of the Nativity. She didn’t know where it was, but let them stay the night before they journeyed onward. When they left the next day, she realized she wanted to join them. But she had no idea where they’d gone—or where Jesus was. So she still flies around today, still looking for the baby Jesus.
Historically, of course, La Befana is a little more complicated. Some historians say she dates back as early as the Neolithic times. Or she might have Celtic origins, since in many European countries, people still burn a puppet of an old lady at the New Year’s beginning. Regardless, the way that she’s celebrated now—as the bringer of gifts… or of coal—has been around in Italy as early as the 13th century.
No matter where La Befana comes from, she’s one of the most fascinating Christmas traditions in Italy—and the favorite of children across the country!
Here’s Bea, our favorite little Roman, experiencing the fun of La Befana—and of the Day of the Epiphany—with Walks of Italy’s Simona.