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Italian traditions For Members

La Befana: How Italy celebrates a witch on January 6th

Jessica Lionnel
Jessica Lionnel - [email protected]
La Befana: How Italy celebrates a witch on January 6th
Women wearing Befana outfits Photo by TIZIANA FABI / AFP)

She’s got a crooked nose, a pointy chin and rides a broomstick through the night skies between on the eve of January 6th. But who is La Befana, what does she do and how does Italy celebrate her?

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Christmas isn’t the only time of the year when children receive gifts in Italy; they also receive gifts during the Epiphany which is on January 6th. This celebration marks the Christian story of when Jesus was visited by the Three Wise Men. It marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas in the country and like Christmas, it’s a national holiday. 

However, whilst Epiphany is celebrated by Christians globally, there is one figure who is quintessentially Italian; La Befana. She’s a witch beloved by Italian children who gives presents to the good ones and lumps of coal to the bad ones. 

What’s her story?

According to popular Christian belief,  La Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men. They were lost and asked her for directions after they saw the star in the night sky. She didn’t know where the star was heading, but provided them with shelter for a night. 

The Wise Men asked La Befana to join them on their venture to find baby Jesus but she declined, only to have a change of heart later. She wasn’t able to find them, and to this day is still searching for the baby.

Another less popular Christian tale is that La Befana turned away the Three Wise Men from her house as she was too busy cleaning. She later felt bad and went to look for them only to never find them.

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But of course, there are other theories which are not related to Christianity at all. Ancient Roman legend believed during the night of January 6th, female deities flew over fields to boost the fertility of the soil. However, the first belief tends to be the one most Italian children grow up with.

Where does she come from?

The small town of Urbania in the region of Marche is said to be La Befana’s hometown. The cittadina with a population of 6,000 throws a festival in honour of La Befana every year, with around 30,000 in attendance. 

Why does La Befana bring gifts?

As she was unable to find baby Jesus, La Befana gave the toys meant for him to other children. Similarly to children hanging up stockings for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve in the UK, Italian children hang up their stockings on the eve of Epiphany in anticipation of Befana’s gifts. The stockings are placed by windows or over fireplaces with Christmas treats such as panettone or pandoro being let out for her.

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Is there any food associated with La Befana?

Italy is a country well-known for food during the festivity period and Epiphany and La Befana are no exception. Fugassa d'la Befana is one such dish that is found on the tables in Piedmont. It’s a sweet focaccia with candied fruit and sugar grains. Fugassa has two beans hidden within it, and according to tradition, those who get the white bean pay for the fugassa, and those who get the black bean pay for the wine.

Biscotti Befanini is another popular Befana treat found in Tuscany. They are simply shortbread biscuits that come in various holiday shapes, like La Befana herself.

Lastly, there is Carbone della Befana (which means Befana’s coal). It’s a sweet made with sugar and egg white and enjoyed by both good and bad children.

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How does Italy celebrate La Befana?

As you probably know, Italy is a diverse country with some differences from region to region, and as such so are celebrations for La Befana. In many cities in the northeast of the country such as Padua, a large straw figure of La Befana is burnt on the evening of January 5th.

Nearby in Venice, Regata delle Befane (regatta of the witches) is held yearly. Participants dressed up as the event’s namesake race their gondolas to the Rialto Bridge where a huge stocking is hung.

In some coastal towns and cities people also participate in the Befana dive, whilst in Rome Piazza Navona there’s a market called Mercatino della Befana. 

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