One of my favourite winter traditions is the celebration of Epiphany in Italy. A festivity dear to children and adults, it has ancient origins and a fantastic background story. This is the history of la befana (aka Italy’s Christmas witch)!
Will la Befana come to your house tonight? And what will she bring you: sweets or coal?
I love to learn about traditions from around the world and I often forget that what is very familiar to me is sometimes unusual or even exotic for someone from a different country.
I was reminded of this discrepancy just recently, when I talked to an Irish friend of mine about the fact that the 6th of January in Italy is holiday, while here in Ireland it isn’t.
Italy celebrates the 6th of January for two reasons: the first is the commemoration of the day when the Three Kings got to Jesus’s crib bearing gifts.
The second is somehow connected with this tradition but has more of a popular flavour to it: it’s the celebration of ‘la Befana’, or what abroad is sometimes referred to as ‘Italy’s Christmas witch’.
The Italian tradition of spending the evening of the fifth of January in anticipation of the arrival of la Befana is probably the one that I miss the most, now that I celebrate Christmas in Ireland and the one that I find the hardest to replicate and keep alive when abroad.
It is an old, traditional Italian story (much older than the one about father Christmas: it dates back to the XIII century) and I am very fond of it, like many other Italians, because it brightens up the end of the festive season and pushes back for about 24 more hours the moment when we have to get back to reality, take down the Christmas decorations and brace ourselves for the return to work.
La befana story is also, I believe, pretty funny: like with all old traditions, there are a few different versions of it, but the one below is one of the better known.
If you want to learn more about the festivities in italy, you may also have a look at this article about Christmas in Rome.
What does la befana look like? Is she Italy’s Christmas witch?
La Befana is an old lady or, most precisely, a witch: she is represented as an old and skinny woman, wrinkly and with a big curved nose, and she is probably originally from a very cold place since she goes around dressed in rags, with many many layers of woolen scarves one of top of the other to keep her warm.
Like all witches, she has magical powers and in particular, she is able to fly with the help, as you may have guessed, of an old broomstick.
Where does the name befana come from?
The name ‘befana’ appears for the first time in a script from 1549 and probably is a corruption of the Greek word ‘epiphany’, the festivity celebrated on the 6th of January and commemorating the moment when the Magi saw baby Jesus for the first time.
Indeed, her legend is linked with the one of the Three Wise Men and it dates back to the moment when Jesus was born or, more specifically, to about 12 days after that event.
What is the history of la befana?
Tradition has it that on the 5th of January the Three Kings ran into la befana while she was sweeping the floor and taking care of the housework.
The Magi stopped to talked with her and asked if she might be interested in joining them in their journey to see the new baby. La befana, however, houseproud as she was, declined the offer: she had way too much housework to do and couldn’t possibly find the time to join them.
The Magi left and la befana returned to her chores, but it didn’t take her long to realise that the baby they were so fond of going to see was no ordinary child and that she should have most definitively accepted their invitation – her house could wait!
So, she decided to set off on a journey on her own and, loaded with a big bag of presents for the baby, jumped on her broomstick and started to fly.
She didn’t have directions on how to get to Bethlehem (the three Kings probably didn’t tell her about the star) but she was a very determined woman and she spent the whole night travelling around the world bringing presents to all the houses she visited, hoping to find baby Jesus in one of them.
To him, she would have brought sweets and a bit of coal (this was a symbol of fertility in pre-Christian times) and this is what to this day Italian children find on the morning of the 6th of January, usually piled up in a long stocking hanging from the chimney… or possibly the kitchen aspirator!
How to welcome la befana to your house
Like father Christmas, la befana appreciates if you leave a glass of wine for her, to make her warm during the long journey, but unlike the jolly man she also has a present for the adults, in the form of volunteering for some housework. La Befana is known to use her broom not only to fly around but also to sweep your floor!
With this gesture, she gives a helping hand and also ‘sweeps away’ your trouble, making the start of your year a clean slate.
Thank you befana, I’ll make sure we have the best Valpolicella out for you!