befana
Befana – Painting by James Lewicki, from “The Golden Book of Christmas Tales” 1956
La Befana vien di notte

con le scarpe tutte rotte

col cappello alla romana

viva viva la Befana!
The Befana comes at night

wearing old broken shoes

dressed in Roman (hat) style

long live la Befana!

The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated January 6 with a national holiday in Italy, and the tradition of La Befana are a big part of Italian Christmas celebrations. Epiphany commemorates the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for Baby Jesus. The traditional Christmas holiday season in Italy lasts through Epiphany.

The legend of Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) has existed in Italy mostly since the days of World War II.   However, there is even a more ancient (and popular) Italian Christmas tradition that has its origins traced back to the 13th century: the legend of “La Befana”

Deriving from the word Epiphany (Greek term meaning “manifestation” or “appearing”), the legend of “La Befana” is that of an old witch lady with a big red nose and slight hunch, dressed in a jacket of colorful patches. She is often pictured with a broom. 

Legend has it that on the 12th night of Christmas (January 5th) the 3 Wise Men, on their search for the baby Jesus, asked “La Befana” to join them in their quest.   She initially declined, stating she had too much housework to do.   She later changed her mind and went looking for the 3 Wise Men and the baby Jesus, but was unable to find them.  

Therefore, every year, on the night of January 5th, “La Befana”, will travel on her magic broom, to every house in Italy in search of the baby Jesus bringing gifts. Climbing down the chimneys, she brings candy (“caramele”) or fruit to the children that were good and black coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic to the children that were naughty.   The children will leave out their stockings, and even their shoes, hoping to awake on the morning of January 6th to some “caramele”.   Similar to the Santa Claus tradition, many of the children will write notes to “La Befana” and even leave out food and wine for her (sausages and broccoli in some parts of Italy).  

It is a tradition that is still strong in Italy with many stores selling stockings, mostly red, but sometimes even sand-colored, for the children to leave out for “La Befana”.   It is a fairy-tale story of the good witch / bad witch, depending on how you behaved during the past year.   After her arrival, there are many parties and Italians will celebrate going from house to house celebrating the bonds of family and friends

The holiday also marks the end of Christmas and New Year’s festivities in Italy, after which children go back to school, adults go back to work, and the Christmas decorations come down.



Italian phrase of the day
ItalianEnglishDialect
Cu non fa nenti non sbagghia nenti.Only those who do nothing do not make mistakes.Sicilian