Holiday Folklore: La Befana

Historically, Italy is a Catholic culture with many holidays and traditions that stem from biblical roots. In the Western world we have Santa Clause and Italians also believe in Babbo Natale during Christmas. However, there’s another holiday they celebrate in January that has a similar concept of Santa. According to the Italians, Santa Clause is not the only one who drops by your house at night to leave goodies. There is another… one who has less of a jolly appearance but still has a kind soul. This woman seems to be the result of a traditional folklore combined with a biblical holiday and is celebrated throughout Italy. Her name is La Befana.

Before Santa Clause became a large commercial holiday like it is in the States, Christmas in Italy was just about spending time with family, enjoying good food, perhaps playing board games, and attending midnight mass. It was basically a purely religious holiday. There were no Christmas trees or presents to be exchanged. Stockings and presents were actually received on Epiphany, January 6. January 6 is a national holiday in Italy commemorating the 12th day of Christmas, when the Three Kings or Wisemen arrived at the manger bearing gifts for baby Jesus. Epiphany is when Italians celebrate the tradition of La Befana with gifts and festivals, also marking the end of the Christmas holiday season.

So who is La Befana? Although she is often described as a witch- usually appearing raggedy dressed and hunched over, has a long nose protruding from under a pointy hat, and she flies on a broom- many agree that Befana is not a witch. Rather, numerous stories describe her as a sympathetic and strange grandmother-type. In the more darker versions of the story, Befana is portrayed as a neglected old woman or sometimes even a hag, but never a witch. La Befana is a tale of an old woman who arrives on her broomstick, visiting all the children in Italy on the eve of Epiphany, January 5. She fills their stockings full of candy, toys, sweets, or with coal, depending on their behavior the year before. In return, a glass of red wine is left out for her.

the legend of la befana

There are a few different legends of how La Befana came to be, and although many stories differ in some small way, all versions of her storyline are linked to the Three Wise Men from the Orient:

According to legend, the night before the Three Wise Men arrived at the manger, they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask for directions and any news of the king that was born. Befana did not know of any news or where they were looking to go, but she offered them shelter. They invited her to go with them when they left, but Befana declined, saying that she had too much housework to do. Later that night she saw a bright light in the sky and decided to catch up to the Wise Men and join them on their journey to find the baby. She packed all sorts of sweets that she would present to the new king and set off to find the men. Unfortunately, she got lost and never found the manager. She decided to drop off some treats she had with her at the homes of different families during her search. Befana thought that eventually she would happen upon the home of the newborn king and he would receive his gifts. It is said she still continues to leave gifts for all children because the goodness and innocence of Jesus can be found in every child.

Another Christian legend says that Befana was an ordinary woman with a child. She greatly loved him but unfortunately, he died. She was full of sorrow and pain. But after a few days, hearing about the birth of baby Jesus, she decided to visit and honor him, bringing her child’s clothes as presents. Jesus, noticing the pain for her loss, gave her a gift in return. She would have been the mother of every child in Italy.

—-

“la befana” words by Patricia Nencini

I am a sympathetic and strange grandmother. The old and young call me Befana. I always wear the same clothes, now worn, old, and unstitched. Over the skirt I put the apron that I take out of the old trunk. To read books & newspapers I have to wear glasses.

I live in a brick house: kitchen, bedroom, and two balconies. I live in a cool and shady wood. In winter I work, in summer rest. I receive letters, cards, and postcards from parents, boys, and girls.

When Epiphany approaches I begin to work with energy. For socks of many colors, I prepare goodies of a thousand flavors. In a long sock I will put garlic, onion, and coal. I arrange the basket on my shoulders, then cover my head with the shawl.

On a clear and bright night, I leave on my flying broom. On the red roof I place slowly, I raise the basket and take it in my hand. Socks in wool, cotton, and lace for the children of this address. In an old brown sock I leave only a little charcoal. Before going to the bedside table I find a nice note.

The time has come to leave as the night is about to end. I fly fast as the wind, return home in a moment. I open the door and with surprise I find a nice hanging stocking. The stocking is full of cute thoughts written and signed by all of the kids.

—-

“The Story of Befana” from Il Libro di Natale by Eliza Prati

At the time Jesus was born, a very poor old woman lived not far from Bethlehem. She had been a beautiful girl, with long thick brown braids and eyes full of light, a real beauty. She had married a very nice and kind young man but, unfortunately, after a short time he was dead and the girl, for the great pain, had lost all her grace and splendor. Loneliness and sadness had made her half mad, she ate the berries and roots she found in the woods, tore her hair crying and spent hours peeling olive branches in front of her house. That life slowly transformed her into an ugly and neglected old woman. But, even if she was half crazy, she didn’t hurt anyone. She liked children who occasionally went to see her to spite her. They made fun of her for her hump and her toothless smile. You know what children are … But she didn’t care. She was sitting on the threshold of her shack, even though she knew the children had hidden among the branches and were spying on her to throw a few pebbles or splash her with water. Then, when some more daring child tried to approach, she stretched out her gnarled hands to caress him and he ran away like hell, with all his friends screaming behind him. They called her the “witch of Bafania” or Befana, but she was not a witch at all, rather … an upside-down fairy.

One cold and snowy January evening, the old Befana was sitting alone, wrapped in four patched blankets in front of her stove, looking at the big holes in her shoes. Suddenly he heard a knock on the door. Wobbling she went to open the door. “Good evening lady,” she heard from the youngest of three men covered in splendid cloaks, embroidered with gold and embellished with resplendent gems. The three had a regal aspect, inspired respect and fear. They were the Magi!

“We came from the Far East, following the light of a comet,” said the Magi to the Befana, “in search of a child who was born in these parts. He is the savior of the world! We bring him our gifts and we want to worship him. But tonight it’s snowing, the star is obscured by clouds, could you tell us news of the little one in the world?”

“Ahhh… the comet? King of the world..” stammered the old woman. “But but … I don’t know .. but .. but .. come in, do you want to sit down? It’s cold outside, it’s … it’s late. This is just a small, poor house, but if you want to favor …”

“Thank you, kind lady, but we are in a great hurry to find the baby.” “Why doesn’t she come with us instead?” they suggested. “You can get on one of our camels and travel comfortably.”

La Befana looked at them astonished and thought of this child who deserved the honors of such important gentlemen. She wanted so much to know him, but she was ashamed of her ugliness and poverty, so she didn’t dare to accept. Then the Magi greeted her, leaving her as a gift a bag full of coins, and they went on their way. La Befana stood on the threshold of her hut with the bag in her hand and her mouth open. But, after a while, she repented and decided to take the trip on her own. She took with her an old sack full of sweets, apples, pears, a mandarin, some toys forgotten by the children near her house and some of the coins that the three strangers had given her to take to the child. She wore a large shawl full of patches and, as a cane, had her old broom. She walked and walked and after some time she felt that her legs could not hold her and she stopped to rest under an oak tree. She fell asleep in the snow and died of cold and fatigue. She found herself in heaven, welcomed by the angels of Heaven.

“Befana! Befana! Don’t worry you couldn’t see the king of kings. You will find it again in all good children!” the angels told her. “From now on, on the night between 5 and 6 January, you will bring gifts and sweets to the children, in memory of the gifts that the Magi brought to Jesus.” La Befana felt light and free from all her pains and she realized she was riding her broom that was magically carrying her, through the clouds, straight towards Santa’s palace.

In the forest surrounding Santa’s ice palace there is in fact a gingerbread house, chocolate and candied fruit. There lives the Befana who happily observes all the children of the world. Every so often the Befana takes a peek at the toys of the gnome factory and thinks about what she wants to leave in the stocking that the children hang on the fireplace on the evening of January 5th. Even the Befana, like Santa Claus, arrives flying! But she rides a magic broom and slips into chimneys or boiler pipes. This old lady arrives after Christmas, for the feast of Epiphania, which remembers the sight of the Magi to Jesus. The Befana loads her sack on her shoulder, full of toys, sweets, coins, and even a little coal. Because she knows that children always make some pranks!

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Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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