As far as I know, Italy is the only country in the world where witches are also closely linked to the Christmas tradition. And not just witches in general – a specific witch who goes by the name of Befana. Otherwise known as The Christmas Witch, La Befana comes to us from Italian traditions that are thousands of years old, but are still celebrated today. Yes, I am Italian and my mother tells us the story every year.
La Befana porta regali ai bambini buoni e carbone ai bambini cattivi.
The fun part about this is On the night of January 6th, on Three Kings Day, of the Feast of Epiphany, if you look to the skies you may see the witch on her broomstick, the witch they call La Befana as she soars across the night giving gifts. .
Needless to say, there are many layers of tradition and stories that go into the creation of La Befana. The story that is told about her is a really weird but delightful one:
Many historians credit her existence to the Roman goddess Strina, who bestowed gifts called strenae.
La Befana porta i suoi regali alla vigilia dell’Epifania.
La Befana lived alone in a house in the hills of Italy. She spent her days cooking and cleaning like all good nonnas do! I too call my grandma Nonna, as my kids their grandma Nonna- big tradition in our family.
One night she noticed a bright light in the sky. After some thought, La Befana decided to ignore the light and go back to sleep. This would be something my mom would do as signs appeared all the time.
A few days later, Three Wise Men stopped at La Befana’s house to ask for directions to Bethlehem. I’m not clear if they walked but needless to say La Befana offered them hospitality. In return, the Wise Men invited her to come with them to visit Baby Jesus. She declined, saying she had too much work to do.
After she had walked a long distance angels appeared to her and gave her the gift of flight. So she hopped on her broom and continued to search for the Christ Child. She is still searching to this very day, and every Epiphany, she visits homes throughout Italy, giving gifts to every child she finds along the way. Over time, she has come to realize that the Christ Child can be found in all children, so her search is not in vain.
La Befana visits all the children of Italy on Epiphany Eve (January 5) by magically sliding down the chimney on her broom. She leaves candy, treats and presents if you’re good, and a lump of coal or black candy if you’re bad. Yeah, I know, that sounds a lot like Santa Claus so she may also be the precursor to the legends surrounding the jolly old man himself! Another tradition is that La Befana also sweeps the floor before she leaves since she is such a good housekeeper. Hence, a witch’s broom-
This story is so full of magic and mystery that it will sure be a fun tradition for the family.
Here is a popular nursery rhyme (filastrocca) about the Befana known across Italy.
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!
La Befana comes at night
with her broken shoes
with her roman clothes
Long live la Befana!