la befana everything you need to know

La Befana: The Magic Story of the Italian Christmas Witch 

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In Italy, the sweetest way to end the holiday season is with a visit from La Befana, the legendary Christmas witch who flies on her broomstick delivering gifts and treats on the night before the Epiphany. While Santa Claus (Babbo Natale) is the iconic gift-bearer in many places, Italians have their unique figure in La Befana whose origins stem from ancient pagan winter solstice rituals. 

On January 5, the eve of the Epiphany, Italian children eagerly await this magical witch who fills shoes and stockings with candies, fruits, small toys, and even lumps of coal – usually pieces of rock candy. Join me as I share the fascinating story, traditions, and facts around La Befana – a beloved icon that represents the beautiful Italian spirit of the holidays.

Key Insights

– La Befana is a legendary figure who brings gifts to children in Italy on Epiphany Eve (January 5th)

– She originated from ancient pagan winter solstice festivals and her name comes from a corruption of the word “Epifania” (Epiphany)

– La Befana is depicted as an old woman flying on a broomstick, wearing a shawl and skirt

– According to one of the legends, she failed to join the Three Wise Men to visit baby Jesus and now searches for him each year

– She fills children’s shoes/stockings with candies, fruits, small toys, and coal (“carbone dolce”)

– This tradition of La Befana in Italy is still alive with adults dressing up as an old witch for home visits and public street festivals 

– Special sweets like Befanini, Carbone Dolce, and regional treats are enjoyed on her feast day

– La Befana is not related to the Christian holiday of the Epiphany on January 6

– She represents the pagan magic and sweetness of an old Italian tradition marking the end of the holidays.



Italian Christmas witch called la befana

Origins of La Befana

Where does La Befana come from?

La Befana originated from pagan winter solstice festivals and agricultural rituals in ancient Italy dating back to the 10th-6th centuries BC. These rituals celebrated the end of the old year and the rebirth of nature. The Romans continued these rituals, aligning them with their calendar and celebrating the winter solstice and festival of Sol Invictus on December 25th. On the 12th night after the winter solstice, they celebrated the death and rebirth of nature through Mother Nature.

A legend says that La Befana represents Mother Nature herself, shriveled in winter. Her gifts represent Nature’s promise to return rejuvenated in spring.

The witch likely derives from these ancient pagan winter rituals and festivals. The name Befana likely comes from the word Epifania (Epiphany in English). Her appearance as an old woman may symbolize the old year ending. Her gifts of coal, ashes, and sweets for children recall the pagan practice of burning effigies and giving gifts at the start of the new year.

When is La Befana celebrated?

Today, La Befana is celebrated in Italy on January 5th, the eve of the Christian feast of Epiphany. Children leave out stockings or shoes for the witch to fill with sweets and presents. Like Santa Claus, she flies around on her broomstick and delivers gifts. The tradition has spread to other European countries but is most popular in Italy. 

La Befana celebrations mark the conclusion of the holiday season and the transition from the old year to the new. The sweet Christmas witch certainly makes the end of the Italian holidays much sweeter.


paining depicting the feast of the Epiphany

The quick answer is no. The Epiphany holiday, l’Epifania in Italian, on January 6th is not related to La Befana. La Befana stems from pagan traditions while Epiphany is a Christian religious celebration. So while the two both involve gift-giving, the holidays are unrelated in origin.

Epiphany is a public holiday in Italy, as are Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, and New Year’s Day. It marks the end of the Christmas holiday season. January 6th is awaited by children for the traditional stocking filled with gifts from La Befana the night before. However, Epiphany’s origins have nothing to do with the old woman on a broomstick.

What does the Feast of the Epiphany celebrate?

Epiphany is a Christian holiday that celebrates the revelation of God’s son Jesus to the three magi – the three wise men or three kings from the East. According to the Biblical story, the Magi saw the Star of Bethlehem rising and took it as a sign of the birth of the king of the Jews. They followed the star to Bethlehem to pay homage and offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus. 

The adoration of Jesus by the Magi, said to be from different continents and commonly named Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, represents Jesus being manifested as the Son of God and savior to the Gentiles and all peoples of the world – not just the Jews. Epiphany marks the day the Magi visited and honored the young Jesus as part of God’s revelation of his son to humanity.


re magi led by the Befana

Let Me Tell You La Befana Story

This might not be the true story, we’ll never know, but it’s the one that’s told to Italian kids and one that adults love as well.

Here’s the Sweetest Legend of La Befana:

One cold winter night, the Three Wise Men were searching for the way to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. They came across an old woman and asked her for directions, which she gladly gave. The Magi invited her to join them, but despite their insistence, the old woman refused. 

After the Wise Men left, the woman regretted not going with them. She gathered up a sack full of sweets and set out to find them, but had no success. So she began knocking on every door, giving candies to each child she encountered, hoping one might be the Christ Child.

According to the legend, La Befana was that old woman who failed to join the Magi to pay respects to Jesus. Now, her spirit flies on her broomstick each year on January 5th, bringing gifts to children as she continues searching for the infant Jesus. 

la Befana looks like this

What does la Befana look like?

La Befana is depicted as an elderly woman wearing a black shawl and is covered with a scarf on her head. She appears to wear a long wide skirt, and comes riding on a broomstick through the air. She carries a sack or basket filled with candy and presents to reward good kids, as well as coal to punish naughty ones. 

I invite you to take this Italian Christmas Witch story and make it yours, share it with your kids and friends around the holiday season. That’s a truly lovely way to infuse the Italian Christmas spirit into your traditions.


What Does the Italian Christmas Witch Bring?

La Befana is known for filling children’s stockings or shoes with small gifts and sweets on the night of January 5th in Italy. The Italian Christmas witch typically brings these treats:

La Befana Traditions Are Still Alive

The Italian Christmas witch tradition remains alive in many Italian homes and streets today. When I was a child, my parents would dress up like La Befana and secretly knock on our door late at night to deliver gifts, keeping the magic real even when I was in on the secret. Other Italian families carry on similar traditions. 

The playful folklore also lives on through festivals and events across Italian streets and piazzas on January 5th and 6th:

In Equi Terme, a village woman dressed as La Befana dramatically jumps from a cave entrance to distribute gifts.

In Tuscany, adults go door to door dressed as witches in cities like Montignoso, Siena, Volterra, Pisa, and Livorno. 

In Verona’s Bra Square, a giant puppet is burned on January 6th to mark the old year passing.

In Venice, costumed gondoliers race through the canals in La Befana disguise. 

In Sicily, a similar figure emerges from a grotto on a donkey, giving out sweets.

The spirit of the Italian Christmas witch endures through cherished home visits and lively public celebrations.

befana flying to deliver gifts on the night of the 5th January

Christmas Witch Filastrocca

Here’s an Italian filastrocca, a nursery rhyme, that captures the broad tradition of this celebration throughout Italy. Later on, I will also be sharing the official witch song.

La Befana di Torino
ha due buchi nel calzino

mentre quella di Milano
le due toppe ha nel pastrano.

Arrivate entrambe a Riccione
si comprarono un bel maglione

e alla scopa stanca di volare
fanno fare un bel tuffo in mare.

La mattina la strada riprendono
che i bambini già le attendono.

Sotto i camini son pronti i calzini
dei ragazzi da Trieste a Vizzini.

Here’s the translation: The Befana of Turin has two holes in her sock while the one from Milan has two patches on her cloak. Both arrived in Riccione and bought a nice sweater and tired of flying they let their broom take a nice dive in the sea. In the morning, they resume the road as the children are already waiting for them. Under the chimneys, the stockings are ready for the kids from Trieste to Vizzini.


What do Italians Eat on La Befana? 

The Tuscan Befanini, which take their name from this feast, are the most popular la Befana treats. Colorful, soft biscuits shaped like stockings, brooms, stars, etc. and topped with sprinkles. 

Other La Befana traditional foods to try while in Italy include:

Local desserts are also widely enjoyed on this festivity, from Buccellati in Sicily (Fig, nut, and spice-filled cookies made with pastry dough) to Pinza Veneta (sweet cornmeal and flour cake from Veneto filled with figs, raisins, and pine nuts) in the Veneto region.

Beyond sweets, Italians also prepare festive savory dishes on La Befana like pasta ‘ncasciata’ in Sicily or octopus salad in Naples. It’s a final feast using favorite holiday recipes before the season ends. 


La Befana vien di notte song

La befana vien di notte 

The sweet poem I shared earlier in this article wasn’t the original La Befana filastrocca, it was also much longer and a little more complex. Let me give you the traditional one, which is also known as La Befana song.

Filastrocca La Befana vien di Notte

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana,
viva viva la Befana!

In English:

Nursery Rhyme: The Befana Comes at Night
The Befana comes at night,
with shoes all tattered and worn,
wearing a Roman-style hat,
long live, long live La Befana!

And there you have it, the original Italian Christmas witch poem, in Italian and English. Keep in mind that the English version loses the rhyme.


Italian Witch Name Pronunciation & Other Words To Know

If you want to practice your la Befana pronunciation listen to me saying it:

By now you’ve surely learned by heart that “Befana” is the Italian witch’s name. But do you know how to say witch in Italian?

Strega

“La strega” means the witch in Italian.

Here are other words you might want to learn about this feast.

Italian WordPronunciationEnglish Translation
Caramellekah-rah-MEL-lehCandies
CarboneKAR-boh-nehCoal
SaccoSAH-kohSack
CalzaKAHL-tsahStocking
ScarpeSKAR-pehShoes
NotteNOT-tehNight
ScopaSKO-pahBroom
VolaVO-lahFlies
BussaBOO-sahKnocks
Re Magireh MAH-jeeThree Kings/Wise Men
FestaFEH-stahHoliday
La Befana handy Italian words to learn

You should also know this fun Italian saying that goes like this: “La Befana porta via Tutte le feste”, meaning the Italian Christmas witch takes away all the festivities.


bonfires to celebrate la Befana in Italy

8 Fun Facts about the Legend of La Befana

Let’s dive into some truly fun and intriguing facts about La Befana:

  1. No Chimneys Needed: Unlike Santa Claus, La Befana doesn’t need chimneys to deliver her gifts. She’s said to enter homes through keyholes or any other available openings.
  1. Epiphany Eve Bonfires: In some areas, especially in central and southern Italy, people light bonfires on the night of January 5th in anticipation of the arrival of La Befana. The fires are meant to guide her to their homes.
  1. La Befana’s Italian Tour: Just like Santa’s reindeer, La Befana is said to travel across Italy on her broomstick, visiting towns and cities. However, she is often depicted as having a preference for visiting children in poorer neighborhoods.
  1. Candy Coal: In addition to leaving gifts and sweets for well-behaved children, La Befana is known to leave candy “coal” for those who haven’t been as good during the year. This playful tradition adds a humorous twist to the holiday.
  1. Honorary Witch Status: In the town of Urbania where a big La Befana festival is held, there is an official inauguration ceremony where a local woman is named the honorary Befana each year.
  1. La Befana in the Vatican: Every year on Epiphany, a special event takes place in Vatican City. La Befana herself arrives at St. Peter’s Square to deliver gifts and greetings to children, and the Pope often leads a prayer for the occasion.
  1. Artistic Depictions: La Befana has been depicted in various forms of art, from traditional illustrations to modern interpretations. Artists have taken creative liberties with her appearance, showcasing her as a kind and quirky old woman on her broomstick.
  1. Collectible Figurines: Much like the figurines of Santa Claus, figurines of La Befana are popular collectibles in Italy. These figurines come in various sizes and styles, reflecting the diverse interpretations of this beloved character.

PS: If you visit around this time of they year, the Befana figurines can make a great souvenir to take back to family and friends.




Final Thoughts on this Holiday in Italy

From her signature sack of sweets to her tattered shoes and hat, La Befana captivates the imagination during her annual visit on Epiphany Eve. This endearing witch has become a cherished icon of the Italian holiday season. As you have seen, her origins and traditions run deep in Italian culture, infusing the end of festivities with magic and delight. 

If you want to learn more about Italian Christmas traditions, be sure to check out my other article about the customs, decorations, and foods that make Natale so special from north to south. Wherever you may be celebrating, may the spirit of La Befana fill your holiday with wonder and joy. Buone Feste e Buon Anno!


Frequently Asked Questions about the Italian Witch

What is the main symbol of La Befana? 

The main symbol of La Befana is her broomstick that she uses to fly around and deliver gifts. Other key symbols associated with her are her shawl and skirt, the sack or basket she carries filled with gifts and candy, as well as her signature hat.

What are 3 symbols of La Befana?

The 3 key symbols of La Befana are:

  1. her broomstick, which she uses to fly around and deliver gifts;
  2. her clothes, namely a shawl, skirt, and a pointed witchy hat;
  3. the sack or basket she carries filled with gifts and candy.

What is the legend behind La Befana? 

According to the legend, La Befana was an old woman who gave directions to the Three Wise Men but then declined their invitation to join them to visit baby Jesus. Later she changed her mind and tried to catch up with them, unsuccessfully, so now she flies around bringing gifts to children while still searching for Jesus.

Where does Befana leave gifts?

Instead of coming down chimneys, La Befana is said to leave gifts and treats in shoes and stockings placed by children on Epiphany Eve (January 5th). She enters through doors and windows rather than chimneys.

How do you say Happy Epiphany in Italian?

“Buona Epifania!” is how you say happy Epiphany in Italian. Epifania means Epiphany.

Is Santa Claus La Befana? 

No, La Befana is a completely separate holiday figure and legend from Santa Claus. She originated from Italian pagan traditions rather than the lore around St. Nicholas.

What are some fun facts about La Befana for kids?

– She is said to give coal to naughty children 

– La Befana doesn’t need chimneys and can get in through any opening

– Some towns have big La Befana festivals and markets 

– La Befana flies on her magic broomstick

How did La Befana meet the 3 Kings?

According to the legend, La Befana met the 3 Magi/Wise Men when they stopped to ask her for directions while following the star of Bethlehem. After pointing them towards Bethlehem, she declined their invitation to join them.  

Is La Befana a good witch?

Yes, La Befana is seen as a good-natured, if quirky, witch who gives gifts to reward well-behaved children. She is a benevolent figure rather than an evil or scary witch.

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