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La Befana – Meet Italy’s Answer to Mrs. Clause!

By Edoardo Martoni

It is a well-known fact that Italians love to find any excuse to celebrate something. Throughout the year in Italy there are countless festivals, hosted by towns and villages up and down the country. I’ve heard of the Frog Festival, The Melon Festival and the Swamp Herbs Festival, to name but a few, but there are hundreds more. You’d think Christmas would be a period where there’d be enough merry-making and you’d be right; except for the fact Italians celebrate the end of the festive season as well.

Many people will have heard of the Epiphany, which falls on the 6th of January. Italians in my region (Emilia-Romagna) say “Arriva, arriva l’Epifania, che tutte le feste si porta via” [Here comes Epiphany, which takes all the festivities away]. However, not so many will have heard of La Befana.

Though she is often portrayed as a hook-nosed, pointy chinned, broom-riding hag, she is actually a friendly witch that brings children sweets and small gifts on the Eve of Epiphany. Many places in Italy will celebrate by having a communal party for children where a member or members of the community, dressed as La Befana, hand out gifts. Once all the children are in bed, the real Befana will visit and leave a stocking full of treats. Despite her kind nature, I remember being quite frightened by the thought of a witch coming to visit!

There are many legends regarding the origin of La Befana, but the most compelling is a Biblical one. The story goes that La Befana was visited by the Three Wise Men while on their way to Bethlehem. They asked her for directions, which she willingly supplied, but refused to join them when requested to because she had chores to finish before the winter set in. A few days later she regretted that decision and set out with a sack of sweets and gifts she intended to give to Baby Jesus. However, she never found the way and so continues, to this day, to deliver gifts to every child on this one night a year; in the hope that one of them will be Baby Jesus.

What are your thoughts on using a witch as part Christmas celebrations? Have you experienced any different Christmas events? Let us know in the comments below.


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