The La Befana Christmas tradition is celebrated in Italian communities worldwide. Unlike the scary witches many of us feared as children, Befana is similar to Santa Claus.
For those of us not raised in Italy, the typical post-holiday health kick usually begins on January 1st, with people giving up alcohol and sweets for as long as they can manage. However, in Italy, the wait extends an extra week due to La Befana, the Christmas witch who delivers candies and gifts on the night of January 5th, known as Epiphany Eve.
La Befana is celebrated worldwide in Italian communities. Unlike the frightening witches of childhood tales, Befana’s name stems from the Feast of Epiphany – Festa dell’Epifania. Legend has it that she was invited to journey with the three wise men to visit baby Jesus but declined. Regretting her decision, she set out the next day with gifts for the child but couldn’t find him. Instead, she delivered presents to all of the other children around the world.
On Epiphany Eve, La Befana visits homes, filling children’s stockings with candy and gifts if they’ve been good. Those who’ve been naughty might find a lump of coal, dark candy, or even garlic! Embracing the Italian concept of balance, many children receive both a lump of coal (usually black rock candy) and a present in their stocking, acknowledging that every child displays both good and bad behavior throughout the year.
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Accompanied by her broomstick, Befana sweeps the floors before departing, symbolically sweeping away the year’s problems. In appreciation, parents leave a small glass of wine and a plate of food. Children are told that if they see La Befana, they’ll get a thump from her broomstick to keep them in bed.
La Befana has become a national icon, with Urbania believed to be her official home. Typically, a grand festival celebrates this national holiday, drawing around 50,000 attendees! Three main celebration sites in Italy uphold the La Befana tradition:
- Piazza Navona in Rome, hosting the largest Christmas market in Rome. Here, you’ll find La Befana figurines and sugar charcoal. Legend has it that at midnight on January 6th, La Befana reveals herself in a window at Piazza Navona.
- Urbania in the Province of Pesaro and Urbino within the Marches, where the national Befana festival occurs between January 2nd and 6th. Usually, a “house of the Befana” is built, and there’s a post office mailbox reserved for letters addressed to La Befana.
- Fornovo di Taro, a town in the province of Parma, hosts the national gathering “Raduno Nazionale delle Befane e dei Befani” on January 5th and 6th.
For some Befana inspiration, watch the movie The Legend of the Christmas Witch, or read Shakespeare’s famous play Twelfth Night, written in the early 1600s.
The final festivity of the Christmas celebration is truly a time for everyone to celebrate renewal, make wishes, and predict what the new year holds.
Photo courtesy of Enoteca Gambi in Florence, ItalyAdd to favorites