The Befana is celebrated every 6 January for the day of Ephiphany, the Christian feast that commemorates the visitation of the three biblical Magi to the baby Jesus. According to the Italian Christmas folklore, the Befana is an old woman riding a broomstick through the air.

She delivers sweets and candies to the good children, but also coal, garlic and onions to the bad ones. In Tuscany the Ephiphany is still a really relevant feast. It is like a second Christmas, and originally it was more important than Santa Claus.

The Origins of The Befana

The name Befana probably derives from Epiphany (in Italian is Epifania), a word with Greek origins that means „manifestation“ of the divinity. The Epiphany is the last feast of Christmas time, that’s why we say „L’Epifania tutte le feste si porta via“ (literally Epiphany takes all the festivities away ).

The origins of Befana are dated back to the X-VI century BC as pagan propitiatory ritual to symbolize the new year in the agricolture calendar. In this way, Earth Mother, passed away, is ready to re-birth as celebrated in the Sol Invictus and the Dyonisiac myth.

The ancient Romans inherited this ritual and they believed that during these days, feminine creatures were flying above the fields bringing the fecundity for the future harvests.

Epiphany represented also the end of the year. In fact, the symbol of this ugly but kind old woman is the broom, that she use to sweep all the past things away, preparing a clean space for the new ones.

A Tuscan custom was burning a Befana puppet as a representation of the end of the year. The remaining coal was put in the children socks with candies as memory of the past year.

Who is the Befana

Befana is not really good looking. She is an old lady with an aquiline nose, a few rotten and crooked teeth, but always smiling, even if with a grim look. Her face has several warts and moles. She is covered of soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney, and she wears an old black shawl.

The night of 5 January, she use to walk around carrying a bag, a hamper or a sack filled with candies or gifts. She distributes them to the children that prepare socks hanged to the fireplace or shoes placed out of the window.

If you want to find a way into an Italian woman’s heart, never say that she looks like a Befana, or she will get really offended!

The legends of the Befana

According to a Christian legend, Befana has been approached by the Three Wise Men. They informed Befana that they were following a Comet Star in the sky, to go honoring the Son of God. They were looking for more information from her, but she was completely uninformed. Anyway, she provided them a shelter for the night, as she was considered the best housekeeper of the village with the most pleasant house. Instead, the Three Wise Men invited her to join them to honor the baby Jesus, but she declined the invitation being too busy with her housework. After the Three Wise Men left, she regrets, and went out looking for them and for the Baby Jesus in the middle of the night. To be sure of giving presents to the right baby, she left something to every child. From that night she spend the 5 January bringing presents to every children of Italy.

Another Christian legend says that Befana was an ordinary woman with a child. She greatly loved him but unfortunately he died. She was, of course, full of sorrow and after few days, hearing about the birth of baby Jesus, she decided to visit and honor him, bringing his child’s clothes as presents. Jesus, noticing her pain for the lost child, gave her a gift in return: she would have been the mother of every child in Italy.

My Childhood memories about Befana

In my family, we used to fill socks also with traditional Befanini cookies. If you are interested to know more about Christmas cakes, have a look at our post about the Christmas cakes of Tuscany.

During Epiphany’s Eve on 5 January, my mother used to prepare Necci, a traditional cake that is a kind of crepe made with chestnut flour and filled with fresh ricotta cheese.

Necci, Chestnut Flour Crepes
Necci filled with Ricotta Cheese.

Once, when I was about 5 years old, I remember I was waiting for the Befana looking at the dark sky with my mother. I noticed a red light, probably it was an airplan, but I was sure it was the red light of the engine of Befana’s broomstick. My mother of course confirmed my thought holding back her laughs.

Moreover, when I was a kid, I remember I attended to the ritual of “Pefani”, nowadays fallen into disuse. Pefani was an autonomous group of kids all dressed as the Befana, generally with someone older as leader. My friends and I were going around singing and playing the popular song of Befana, wishing to collect money or candies, which recall to my mind a sort of Halloween.

La Befana vien di notte (Italian Version)

La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!

La Befana vien di notte (English Version)

The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live the Befana!

Montignoso the Village of Befana

Montignoso is a small municipality in province of Massa-Carrara, in northern Tuscany. Here the tradition of Befana is still really vivid, and its feast is celebrated by adults and children. The night of the Epiphany´s Eve, small groups of people, dressed like the Befana, used to visit each family of the village. Without saying a word, they knocked at their doors, offering candies to the children, and receiving back glasses of warm beverages and other candies too. This was the way to celebrated Befana in the eighties. Nowadays the ritual changed becoming a more modern event with music and entertainment along the streets of the village.

Befane_my travel in tuscany
Three ladies dressed as Befana – Photo Credits: Eleonora Gianinetto

What about you? Have you ever heard before about Befana? Are you going to celebrate this ugly kind woman?

Cover photo credits Simone Zucchelli

18 thoughts on “Befana, an Italian Christmas folklore

  1. Ryan Sneltzer says:

    That is definitely an interesting tradition. The food looks amazing, but I don’t know about that lady and her nose haha.

  2. Kathryn Occhipinti says:

    Nice post, Edoardo! I’ve learned a lot about the tradition of La Befana that I didn’t know before. What a fun tradition to share with children! If you have a recipe for the ricotta crepes, I’d love to try them! Sharing with Facebook Stella Lucente Italian page and on twitter @travelitalian1. Thanks for posting in the Conversational Italian! Facebook group!

  3. Bismah Bonnie says:

    Its wonderful to see traditions kept alive like this. My boys and I really enjoy learning about different cultures around the world.

  4. Alicia Taylor says:

    What a fascinating read! I haven’t ever heard of this tradition. I am intrigued by all the stories about who she was and why she was who she was.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *