All you need to know about the Italian figure that wraps up the holidays
Ever heard of La Befana? The figure is a big deal in Italian folklore – our own take on a female version of Santa Claus, if you wish, but also, just as importantly, a festivity that marks the official end of the holiday season.
La Befana falls in fact on the day of the Epiphany, on January 6, aka the Christian holiday primarily commemorating the Three Wise Men’s visit to baby Jesus and his baptism by John the Baptist. It’s the day the Christmas tree comes down and we get ready to return to work or school. The time to say goodbye to the last slice of panettone – at least until February 3, San Biagio’s Day, when you’re supposed to eat a leftover piece of the sweet bread to fend off ailments and poor health (a tradition that’s especially felt in Milan).
But La Befana is also just a really cool character, which brings good children treats and naughty ones coal. A strong, witch-like persona we can’t help but find ourselves drawn too.
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A grandmotherly witch
While the Epiphany stems from the religious world, the Befana is very much a pagan figure, although with a few connections to Christianity still. According to legend, in fact, the grandmotherly woman was in her cottage sweeping the floor on the night of the Epiphany when she glanced out of the window and saw a bright light in the night sky. She paused to admire it, but then returned to her work as she was devoted to being a good housekeeper.
Soon after the star appeared, she was paid a visit by the Three Wise Men, who had wandered far from their path toward the humble stable in Bethlehem to visit baby Jesus. They asked La Befana for directions and invited her to join them on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born. Too reluctant to leave her work unfinished, she declined, but later came to regret her decision.
She ran after them with her broom and her basket of small gifts for the holy child but failed to find them. Ever since then, the story goes, La Befana has sought to continue her search by flying on her broom to the homes of sleeping children, entering through the chimney and bearing gifts to well-behaved kids, and lumps of coal for naughty ones.
Black shawls and broomsticks
If Santa Claus looks pristine in his red-and-white uniform, La Befana is the anti-hero of the holiday season, described in traditional folk stories as dressed in tattered rags and a pointy, witchy hat. As she enters houses through the chimney – or resorts to other secret techniques for getting into homes that don’t have a fireplace – she wears a distinctive dark shawl caked with layers of chimney soot and sweeps the floor before she departs – a symbolic gesture for clearing out the old just as the new year is dawning. Some families leave out a glass of wine to thank her for that, which makes us love her even more and seems pretty fair, really.
She’s the Italian Christmas witch, and a woman after our own heart.
Celebrating La Befana
It is said that La Befana makes her rounds on the eve of January 6, leaving gifts in stockings or shoes set by the fireplace. To this day, many Italian families still honour her that way, putting out their best socks for the old hag to fill.
While Santa Claus has surpassed her in importance, La Befana remains a core figure of our folklore, and her spirit is still very much beloved around the Bel Paese.
That’s especially true for Rome, where Il Mercato della Befana in Piazza Navona – an open air Christmas market that takes over the square until the Epiphany – was established over a century ago to celebrate the witch. In the 19th century, the Eternal Capital’s native bard Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, even wrote odes to the Befana; while the composer Ottorino Respighi titled the fourth movement of his 1928 “Feste Romane” “La Befana.”
But travel elsewhere in Italy, and you’ll still find lots of La Befana-themed shenanigans. The most over the top might be in the Marche town of Urbania, which hosts the National Festival of La Befana every year. Self-described as “the home of La Befana,” the urban centre puts on a sprawling celebration spanning dancing, singing and street performances, as well as appearances by hundreds of Befanas who hand out sweets to anyone in sight.