In the United States, the holiday season brings about traditional tales of Santa Claus, the Three Wise Men, and the Little Match Girl. In Italy, another character takes center stage: La Befana.
The Story of La Befana
According to Italian folklore, La Befana is an old woman who travels through Italy on Epiphany Eve (January 5) to deliver gifts to children.
The name “Befana” likely comes from the Feast of Epiphany (or Festa dell’Epifania in Italian). In pictures, the woman resembles a witch. She wears a black shawl, is covered in soot from entering homes through the chimney, and even rides a broomstick.
Good children receive candy and presents in their socks, while bad children receive a lump of coal, dark candy, or – in rural parts of Italy and Sicily – a stick.
Many storytellers also say that La Befana sweeps the floor before she leaves the house, sweeping away last year’s problems. Instead of cookies and milk, Italian families leave out a small glass of wine and a plate with a few pieces of local or regional food as an offering to La Befana.
About Epiphany and Epiphany Eve
In Italy, Epiphany (celebrated on January 6) is a celebration marking the end of the Christmas season. It commemorates the day the Three Wise Men delivered gifts to baby Jesus in the manger. Epiphany Eve – like Christmas Eve – is celebrated the day before Epiphany.
Similar to the Christmas holiday in many parts of the world, this holiday features live nativity scenes, parades, and gift exchanges.
Legend has it that La Befana is connected to the Three Wise Men. They happened upon her early in their journey, and she hosted them in her humble home. The Wise Men then invited La Befana to join them to meet baby Jesus. She declined initially because she was busy cleaning her home. However, on second thought, she decided to follow after them.
She then filled a basket with gifts for the baby and began her trek. Despite following the same star as the Three Wise Men, she couldn’t find the manger at the same time they did.
Today, storytellers say that La Befana still travels every Epiphany Eve in search of good children to surprise with gifts.
Which Came First, La Befana or St. Nick?
Many argue that the tale of La Befana has been around long before the story of St. Nick.
La Befana dates back to the eighth century in Italy. Santa Claus, on the other hand, didn’t enter popular culture until the late 1700s and early 1800s.
It’s important to note, though, that stories of the generous St. Nicholas (after whom Santa Claus is named) date back to the third century in the ancient Greek city of Myra, located in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
La Befana has remained a staple figure in Italian holiday folklore for hundreds of years, and she’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Modern-day Epiphany Eve celebrations still feature her heavily. The Christmas market in Piazza Navona even bears her name.