La Befana, known as the ‘Good Witch of Christmas’, is Italy’s most well-known and interesting Christmas character.
Who is La Befana?
In Italian folklore, La Befana is the old lady who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy. Her name may have come from the festival of Epiphany or even from the Roman goddess, Strina, who presided over the New Year’s gifts.
Another popular fairytale version, the story says that the three Wise Men stopped to get directions and invited the old woman, who resembled a Strega, (a witchy woman), to join them on their journey to bring gifts to Baby Jesus. She initially refused, due to being too busy with housework, but then tried to follow them. Unable to find Jesus, the kind-hearted Befana gave the toys to other children.
Other stories suggest that this folktale may actually date back to the Roman Pagan Festival of Saturnalia, the multiple week festival starting just before the Winter Solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their fortunes read by an old crone. This story most likely evolved into the tale of La Befana.
La Befana and The Feast of Epiphany
The Feast of the Epiphany, an important post-Christmas date on the Christian calendar, is celebrated on January 6 as a national holiday in Italy.
The tradition of La Befana, who arrives on the night before Epiphany, plays a big part in this celebration.
This holiday also marks the end of Christmas festivities in Italy, after which the children go back to school, the adults go back to work, and the Christmas decorations all come down.
The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the twelfth day of Christmas when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for Baby Jesus.
But for Italian children, it’s the day when they finally get their holiday presents!
La Befana arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5 with toys and sweets for the good children and lumps of coal (usually a sweet candy, like black licorice) for the bad children.
Children are not allowed to see La Befana because the parents need the children in bed while they put out the gifts, sweep the floors, and drink the wine on the eve of the Feast of Epiphany.
Normally there are many local festivals throughout Italy celebrating La Befana – however, with Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns currently in effect throughout Italy, there will be none this year.