Italian Christmas Traditions: The Legend of La Befana

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, which means that last night La Befana visited children throughout Italy, filling the stockings of good little boys and girls with sweets and treats and leaving coal (or a stick, in Sicily) to the bad ones.  Children set out for her – not cookies and milk – but red wine and traditional local sweets. She comes down through the chimney so is covered in soot, but uses her enchanted broom (which she rides from house to house) to sweep up before she leaves, brushing away not only the soot but also all of the problems of the previous year.

Sound a bit familiar?

OK so obviously there are a lot of differences, but until recent years when Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) has become more popular in Italy, La Befana was the star of the Christmas holiday (and might still be!).

Some people think that Befana is a Christian continuation of one Roman goddess or another, others say the tradition began during the 13th Century.  The basic story that everyone seems to agree on happens when the Three Magi, Kings or Wise Men pass through the town where La Befana lives while following the North Star to find the newborn Baby Jesus.  La Befana, who some say was a widow who also had outlived her only son, was a stellar housekeeper who was constantly sweeping, baking, gardening and cleaning her small cottage.  When the Three Wise Men approached her and asked her if she knew where to find the Holy infant, she told them she didn’t but offered to shelter them for the night.

When the Three Kings left the next morning they asked La Befana to join them in following the star toward the Baby Jesus, but she told them she had too much housework to do and just couldn’t leave.  That night as La Befana gazed up at the North Star, she realized she had made a terrible mistake, put some pastries, fruits and nuts into her picnic basket, grabbed the broom she was incessantly sweeping with, and rushed out into the night to catch up with the Wise Men.

La Befana searched and searched but never found the Magi or the Baby Jesus.  To this day she is still searching, and on the night before the Epiphany, when she comes across good girls and boys, she leaves them treats.  When she finds a naughty child, she leaves them coal (or, now, a sweet lump of black sugar that looks like coal).

I’ve also found versions of the legend where La Befana falls asleep against a rock during her search only to find an Angel sprinkling magic onto her broom.  The Angel disappears and Befana realizes that her broom can now fly, so she hops on and zips swiftly to find the Baby Jesus.  Jesus is so touched by La Befana’s search for him that, as a gift to her, he gives her all of the children of the world as her own on one night of the year.

Walks of Italy created a very sweet video of a mother discussing La Befana with her daughter and then exploring the Piazza Navona Christmas Market, where La Befana plays a starring role.  Enjoy it below, e Buona Festa!




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