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  • Writer's pictureRoma Experience

Italian Traditions and Holidays: La Befana

What is your favorite part of Christmas? Getting gifts, giving gifts, decorating the street, Christmas songs, Christmas sweaters (no you did not say you enjoy them, haha), or hanging your stocking near the fireplace. I grew up on the North East Coast and it was tradition to light a fire and after the tree was all decorated, we kids each picked a spot on the fireplace where we were sure Santa could fill our stocking to the max. Now I live in Italy and there is something very different about Christmas Stocking and it includes a Witch!

If you know anything about Italy, one thing you know for sure is there are lots of Holidays, most related to something holy and so is Befana… somehow. January 6th is in the Catholic Religion called the Epiphany. Epiphany commemorates the first two occasions of Jesus’s divinity which according to Christian belief, was for Western Christianity when the three kings (also known as wise men or Magi or three wise men) visited infant Jesus in Bethlehem with gifts. The second, according to Eastern Christianity is when Jesus baptized John the Baptist baptized in the River Jordan. The day is also known as the Three Kings Day.

Here in Italy, it also represents the day of Befana, who is an old woman who delivers gifts (mainly chocolate) to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve if they were good, if not they get a lump of coal, just as Santa does on Christmas Eve. Some claim she sweeps the floor before she leaves as a symbol to sweep away the previous year’s problems. My mom used to have a kitchen witch which looked identical to Befana.

A recent movie was produced about la Befana to watch with your kids!

As we in America leave milk and cookies for Santa, Italian tradition is to leave some wine. I think there was a time my dad left Whiskey for Santa, only as older children, we realized find my father adored whiskey. There are many stories around La Befana. Have you ever seen the “little drummer boy”? Maybe with that one, I am dating myself, but the Romans kill the lamb of a peasant boy and he follows “the star” to Bethlehem to ask for a miracle. He was without a gift and so played a song for baby Jesus and the lamb is resurrected. Such a great Christmas story, I do not know if it even exists anymore, but there is a story about La Befana that is similar.

Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

I guess I was a good “boy” this year as I did get a stocking full of Italian Chocolate and it made me smile. I have the pleasure of living in Italy, but I would recommend that whoever is reading this, don’t just think of Italy as a summer destination, there are so many traditions throughout the year which make the country amazing which leaves you with an authentic experience. Did you get anything from Befana? A recent movie was produced about la Befana to watch with your kids!

There are many interesting songs and filastrocche about Befana. One of the most famous is “La Befana Vien di Notte” (The Befana Comes at Night).

Think of Italy as an all-year destination, see it in all its different personalities. Let Italy surprise you and if you are a good boy or girl, maybe Befana will bring you chocolate next year.


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