“La Befana spazza via gli ultimi giorni di festa con la sua scopa”- the Befana sweeps away the last days of festivities with her broomstick.
The Befana is a rival to Babbo Natale (a.k.a. Father Christmas, Santa Claus) in December, but she comes from a much older tradition, has a very different appearance, and shows up to reward good Italian children in January.
Who is La Befana?
In the collective Italian imagination, the Befana is a mythical character with the appearance of an old woman who brings gifts to well-behaved children on the night between January 5th and January 6th (Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas).
Her origin is lost in the mists of time, but descends from pre-Christian magical traditions and, in popular culture, is fused with folklore and Christian elements. The Befana brings gifts in memory of those offered to Jesus as a baby by the Magi.
On the night between January 5th and 6th, under the weight of a sack overflowing with toys, chocolates, and candies, the Befana flies over the roofs and comes down the chimney to fill stockings left hanging by children. The kids leave a tangerine or orange and a glass of wine for her on a plate. The next morning, tradition has it that good children will find gifts and sweets, while naughty children will find coal or even garlic in their stocking!
Good To Know: La Befana is not just the name of the woman – it’s also the name of the holiday.
What Does La Befana Look Like?
Her iconic appearance is always the same: she is an old lady with a long nose and a pointed chin. She wears a wide, dark skirt, an apron with pockets, a shawl, a scarf or hat, and a pair of worn slippers, with lots of colorful patches. She also travels (like a good witch) on her broomstick.
The Befana Poem / Song
The Italian nursery rhyme (the Befanata) that is recited in her honor goes like this:
“La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana
viva viva la Befana! ”
“The Befana comes by night
with her shoes all broken
and her Roman-style hat
Long live the Befana! “
There is also another version by poet Giovanni Pascoli:
Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana
Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!
Legend / Origins of La Befana
As her witch-like appearance suggests, she is descended from pre-Christian magical traditions. The term ‘Befana‘ comes from the Greek ‘Epiphany,’ meaning ‘apparition’ or ‘manifestation.’ The Befana is therefore celebrated at Epiphany, which ends the Christmas holiday period.
One of the versions of the Befana legend in the Christian tradition is closely linked to that of the Three Kings. On a freezing winter’s night, Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior were journeying to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus but were unable to find their way, so they asked a little old lady for information.
The Magi then invited the woman to join them on their journey, but despite their insistence, the old woman refused. Once the Three Wise Men had left, she regretted not having followed them and so she prepared a sack full of sweets and set out to look for them, but to no avail. She then started knocking on every door, giving every child she met some sweets, in the hope that one of them would be baby Jesus himself.
If we go even further back, into pre-Christianity, the twelve nights following the winter solstice were a period dedicated to celebrating the rebirth of nature. Mysterious female figures were believed to fly over the fields to bless future harvests, guided by Diana (the lunar goddess of hunting and vegetation) or Sàtia (a minor deity linked to the concept of satiety). The myth of the ‘flying woman’ on the broomstick is said to have originated from this.
The figure of the old woman dressed in rags, on the other hand, seems to represent the concept of the old, worn-out year, or for others the poor and ungenerous nature of a harsh winter.
The character of Perchta or Berchta, an old woman with disheveled hair, tattered clothes, and giant feet celebrated in some areas of Austria and Germany – not surprisingly, precisely twelve days after Christmas – has a similar meaning.
The custom of burning puppets dressed in rags in New Year festivities is also widespread in many cities in Italy and Europe as a whole, and the broom is also said to be a symbol of purification, cleansing, and rebirth.
How to Pronounce La Befana
La Befana is pronounced la beh-FAH-nah.
On January 5th, you can wish someone a Happy Befana: Buona Befana! [BWOH-nah beh-FAH-na!]
If someone wishes you a Buona Befana, you can reply: Grazie, anche a te! [GRAH-tsee-eh, AHN-keh ah teh!]
La Befana’s Hometown
The Befana is celebrated throughout Italy and has become a national icon, especially in the regions of Le Marche, Umbria, and Lazio.
She is thought to live in the Italian hills and the town of Urbino (in Le Marche) is believed to be her official home.
La Befana in Present Day Italy
Every year the town of Urbino in the Marche region holds a large festival to celebrate the Befana. Hundreds of Befanas are present, swinging from the main tower, they juggle, dance, greet all the children, and give them gifts.
Fornovo di Taro, a town in the province of Parma also holds a “Raduno Nazionale delle Befane e dei Befani,” a national meet-up for both female – and male(!) – Befanas.
In Venice at Epiphany, according to tradition, a group of 50 men dressed up as Befanas compete in a rowing competition on the Grand Canal. The first to cross the finish line, marked by a sock on the Rialto Bridge, is the winner!
Rome has its traditional Befana Market in Piazza Navona. Vendors sell Christmas decorations, regional foods, candies, toys, and more. Plus, there’s a carousel for small kids to ride.
In many cities (like Florence), women dress up as La Befana and toss candies to children in a main piazza.
La Befana for Visiting Children
If you’re visiting Italy with your family, it’s easy to celebrate La Befana as Italian families do. Just make sure your child (ren) put out a stocking (or even a sock) on the evening of January 5th and that La Befana leaves candies inside for your child (ren). You’ll also find simple pre-filled stockings at grocery stores (supermercati) or shopping malls (centri commerciali).
You can also check out one of the Befana events if you’re nearby! And be sure to print out our La Befana Coloring Pages for your kids!
Spending the holidays in Italy? Or just curious about how we celebrate here? Check out our Christmas posts:
Where to Spend Christmas in Italy
Christmas in Italy for Kids – Traditions & How to Celebrate
How to Say Merry Christmas in Italian
Traditional Italian Christmas Foods
Traditional Italian Christmas Lunch
Authentic Italian Christmas Eve Dinner
Pandoro vs Panettone
Presepe – The Italian Nativity Scene
Babbo Natale – Italy’s Santa Claus
La Befana – Italy’s Christmas Witch
12 Italian Christmas Traditions We Still Celebrate
Where to Buy a Christmas Tree in Italy
10 Best Places to See Christmas Trees in Italy
Best Christmas Markets in Italy
Christmas in Tuscany
Who is the Befana?
La Befana is a sort of ‘good witch’ who brings Italian children gifts and candies on the eve of the Epiphany.
When is La Befana’s festival celebrated?
La Befana visits the homes of children on the night of the 5th of January, to coincide with Epiphany (January 6th).
Do Italian children also have stockings for Christmas?
Italian Christmas tradition doesn’t include stockings filled by Babbo Natale on Christmas Eve. Instead, children put their stockings out on the eve of the Epiphany, to be filled by La Befana.