Italy Today

Celebrating La Befana in Italy

The religious background of the Italian Christmas Witch

Celebrating La Befana in Italy

Claudia Astarita

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Not many people outside Italy are familiar with "La Befana", the Italian Christmas Witch. Actually, even in Italy La Befana is much more popular in the south of the country than she is in the north.

It is not even known when the tradition of celebrating La Befana started, probably around the XIII century. Today, it has become one of the most popular feasts celebrated in Italy, not as much as Santa Claus but still quite important. On the eve of Epiphany, that is the last day of Christmas and the one in which the three wise men arrived at Bethlehem following the star announcing the birth of Lord Jesus, all the children would hang out a special sock for La Befana. The following morning, they would find simple home-made gifts or little sweets while those who have not been good enough will find their sock full of ash, coal and garlic.

Although La Befana is now portrayed as a friendly benevolent old woman, in the pagan world she used to be a goddess, part of the magical, fairy world, patron of plants and animals, a sort of ancestral spirit whose sacred totem is the Woven Stocking.

There are many versions of legends about La Befana, but one of the most interesting is the story that commenced at the birth of Baby Jesus. According to this legend, La Befana was an old woman who lived alone in a house somewhere in Italy, spending her days sweeping and baking. One night, after noticing a bright light in the sky, she heard a knock on her door. There were the three wise men asking her for directions to Bethlehem as they were looking for the "special child" that was just born. La Befana told them she had no idea about the place they were looking for, and that she was not interested in joining them in their search as she was too busy.

When they left, she changed her mind. She packed some sweets for this special child and she left bringing along her broom. After a while she got lost, but angels appeared to help her. Unfortunately, she never found the Baby Jesus, but on her way to Bethlehm she gave most of her sweets away to children that she came across just in case they were the special child. It is said that La Befana is still looking for the special child, and this is the reason why, every year, on the eve of the Epithany, whenever she comes to a house where there is a child, she drops in to see if it might be the special child she seeks and drops some gifts here and there.

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