Robie is an Italian artist who now lives in the US. She loves to share useful vacation tips and first-hand knowledge about Italy.
Italian Santa Has a Helper
Every Christmas Eve, Santa stops at Italian homes, if children have been good of course.
But Italian children enjoy gifts from another gift bearer, a bad looking, quite ugly as a matter of fact, old lady, that fills their stockings on the Epiphany.
The night between January 5 and 6, riding a broom, under the weight of a huge bag full of candies and gifts, with also a good dose of coals, La Befana flies over the roofs, gets in the homes through the chimneys and fills stockings for children.
La Befana - Origins of Her Tradition
The word Befana is a deformation of Epiphany, from the Greek “Tà epiphaneia”, which means "Manifestation of the God".
In the Christian tradition, the Epiphany is a celebration of the visit of the Three Kings, or Magi, to baby Jesus, and their gifts for him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
However, La Befana has origins that go back for centuries, tied to the pagan celebration of the beginning of a new year. The beginning of January has always been a time of celebration in the rural communities. In January winter is over (winter solstice is around 21-22 December) and it is time to resume work on the fields to prepare for the new year’s crop.
In 336 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine started to celebrate Christmas on December 25, and the date was chosen because that was the day the pagans celebrated the winter solstice and the Roman god Saturn. It was also the time when the Jewish celebrated Hanukkah.
Back then, on the 12th night after Christmas, farmers thought they could see Diana, goddess of fertility, fly over the fields just sowed for the new growing season.
The Catholic Church condemned this belief as evil, and this stimulated the creation of stories about witches flying on their broom between the old and the New Year.
With time, after the XVI century, this belief has developed into the story of La Befana, a good old lady that brings gifts on the twelfth night after Christmas.
The Legend of La Befana and the Magi
A common legend about how La Befana came to be, tells about an old lady that lived when Jesus was born. The Three Kings, on their journey from the East to welcome baby Jesus, met the lady and asked her for shelter.
When they departed, the Kings asked the old lady to join them in bringing the gifts to the baby, but she was too busy cleaning and sweeping and she refused to follow them.
Later she regretted staying, and she tried to catch up with the Kings, but she couldn't. Since then she has been flying every year the knight between January 5 and 6, still looking for baby Jesus, and bringing gifts to all good children, in the hope that one of them might be Jesus.
People Like to Dress Up Like the Old Lady
The Burning of The Old Lady – Bruciare La Vecchia
In rural areas of Italy, the evening before the epiphany takes place the traditional burning of La Befana. High pyres of wood and straw, with on top a figure of the Befana, or old lady, are lit.
The old lady burning represents the old year gone, and the popping sound of the fire are the bad spirits escaping.
People would gather around the fire, dance, sing, eat, and celebrate together. Much attention was given to where the smoke from the pyre went, for this would foresee how the next growing season would be.
This tradition is still in place in many regions, even though the rural superstitions and meanings have largely been lost.
Scenes from the traditional burning of La Befana
The Typical Gifts From La Befana
The traditional gifts that La Befana left in children’s stockings were oranges, nuts, and small sweets. For children that had been bad, she would leave lumps of coal.
The children leave nearby a fruit or a cookie, and something to drink, it could be milk or even some wine. La Befana always appreciates finding good snacks.
While in the past the children would hang their own socks on the mantelpiece on the night of January 5, and find them filled the morning after, the modern Befana buys pre-filled fancy stockings at stores.
While long ago La Befana used to bring real coal to the children that misbehaved (and everyone managed to get some coal among the candies), now she brings sugary black blocks that look exactly like coal, but are deliciously sweet to eat nevertheless.
Many families don’t have a fireplace, but this does not stop the good old lady from getting to their children. Somehow she manages into the house and leaves the stockings, often she sneaks silently into the bedrooms of sleeping children and leaves her gifts on their bed.
Befana's Italian Nursery Rhyme
"La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello e la sottana
viene viene la Befana.
Lascia un dono sul camino...
quando va fa un bell'inchino."
"La Befana comes at night
With shoes all broken
With a hat and a skirt
comes comes la Befana.
She leaves a present on the hearth...
When she goes she nicely bows."
© 2012 Robie Benve
Marilena Archangela Sartore De Araujo on January 03, 2015:
La Befana é uma tradição ITALIANA, por isto talvez muitos não tem conhecimento. Nos os italiamos como eu sou de uma SOCIETÀ ITALIANA aqui em Ribeirão Preto na qual eu mi visto como uma befana e fazemos uma festa nesta data, como este ano a data e em uma Quarta Feira nos estaremos reunindo os filhos dos socios e não socios da società com suas familias para uma comemoração onde todas as crianças recebem brinquedos e doces e balas. Esta comemoraçao da Befana vem dos tempos do nascimento de Jesus quando os 3 REIS MAGOS convidaram esta senhora para ir visitar Jesus e ela se recusou , desde então ela para se penitenciar distribuia doces presentes na redobdeza onde ela morava
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 01, 2012:
Melovy, you are right, I think those ladies had fun as well, it's a fun tradition. I never realized how little it was known, I'm glad I wrote about it, a little reward for all the candies La Befana has brought me along the years. :)
Marcy, you got me with the Brujos... no idea about Spanish traditions. Isn't it amazing how many different and interesting ones there are?
Thanks a lot to both for the great feedback. :)
Yvonne Spence from UK on September 27, 2012:
I've never heard of La befana before so this was really interesting. It looks like those ladies had a lot of fun dressing up too!
Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on September 26, 2012:
I've never heard of this legend or tradition! Brujos (witches - hope I got that right in Spanish!) were mentioned in Spain, and there was even a scent with that name - designed to look romantic and seductive.
Very interesting hub! Thanks!
Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on September 19, 2012:
La befana is absolutely new to me too. What a fascinating set of traditions to have arisen from the story of one old lady. I like the sound of the edible coal!
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 19, 2012:
Hi hecate-horus and Glimmer Twin Fan, Maybe La Befana will stop at your house too next Epiphany... I think she's willing to expand her business overseas, after all she comes all the way to Ohio for my children. lol
Thanks for your comments and support. :)
Claudia Mitchell on September 18, 2012:
Great hub. I love learning about new traditions around the world.
hecate-horus from Rowland Woods on September 18, 2012:
Yay for a good witch! :) I never heard of this before! Shared, tweeted, pinned, and awesome! And...We may have a new tradition in our house. :)