La Befana is the last festivity of Christmas time in Italy celebrated every 6 January. According to the Christian tradition, on the day of Ephiphany, the three biblical Magi finally meet the baby Jesus. In the Italian Christmas folklore, we also celebrate the coming of the Befana.
La Befana is represented by an old woman that, riding a broomstick through the air, delivers sweets and candies to the good kids. But she also brings coal, garlic, and onions to rascals.
The Origins of La Befana
The name Befana probably derives from Epiphany, Epifania in Italian. The word has Greek origins and means “manifestation“ of the divinity.
The Epiphany is the last festivity of Christmas time. For this very reason, we usually say „L’Epifania Tutte le feste si porta via“. Literally, Epiphany takes all the festivities away.
We can trace back the origins of La Befana to the X-VI century BC and. At that time, people celebrated with pagan propitiatory rituals the end of the year’s harvest and the beginning of a new season in the agriculture calendar.
The ancient Romans inherited these rituals celebrating the twelve days after the winter solstice and Sol Invictus anniversary, which ended the calendar year. On the twelfth night after the winter solstice, they officiated Earth Mother that, passing away, set off the death and re-birth of nature.
During those nights the Romans believed that unknown female figures, flying over cultivated fields, would have secured excellent results for the future harvests. In the same way as those mythological figures, also the Befana flies.
La Befana is an old and ugly woman because she represents the end of the year. In fact, one of her symbols is the broom. She uses to sweep all the past things away, preparing a clean space for the new ones.
According to a Tuscan custom, the act of burning a Befana puppet was a representation of the end of the year. The remaining coal was placed in the children’s socks with candies as a memory of the past year.
How La Befana looks like
La Befana is not really good looking. She is an old lady with an aquiline nose, a few rotten and crooked teeth. Her face has several warts and moles. But she has always a smiling face even if she has a grim look. She wears an old black shawl and is covered by a layer of soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney.
We use to sing this little folk song:
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!
Here is the 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!
On the night of 5 January, she goes around carrying a big hamper, or a sack, filled with candies and gifts for the kids. At home, children hang stockings on the mantelpiece (or shoes out of the window) so Befana could fill them with presents.
If you want to find a way into an Italian woman’s heart, never say that she looks like a Befana. She will get really offended!
Legends of La Befana
According to a Christian legend, the Three Wise Men met the Befana on their way to Bethlehem to honor the Son of God. They told this old lady that they were following a Comet Star in the sky. They asked for more information, but she was completely uninformed about it.
Anyway, she provided them a shelter for the night. She was considered the best housekeeper in the village with the most pleasant house. Instead, the Three Wise Men invited her to join their trip to honor baby Jesus. But she declined, being too busy with her housework.
After the Three Magi left, she regrets and ran out in the middle of the night to find them and the Baby Jesus. To be sure of giving presents to the right baby, she left something for every child. From that moment she spends the night of 5 January bringing presents to every child in 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 pain. But after a 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 the pain for her loss, gave her a gift in return. She would have been the mother of every child in Italy.
Childhood memories about Befana
I have a funny memory from when I was about 5 years old. I remember I was waiting for the Befana staring at the night sky with my mother. We noticed a red light in the dark, probably was an airplane. But to me, that was the red light of the engine of Befana’s broomstick. My mother didn’t tell me the truth. She just confirmed my thought holding back laughs.
Moreover, when I was a kid, I used to participate in 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 a leader. My friends and I were going around singing and playing the popular songs of the Befana. We wanted to collect as much money or candies as we could. This ritual recalls to my mind a sort of Halloween.
Celebrating La Befana in Tuscany
In Tuscany, the Befana is still a really relevant feast day. It is like a second Christmas, and originally it was more important than Santa Claus. To follow, I tell you a few Tuscan traditions connected to La Befana.
Baking Befanini Cookies
Besides all candies that kids can find inside the hang socks above the chimney, in the area of Lucca and Massa Carrara, people prepare Befanini cookies. Here is the recipe to prepare delicious and easy-to-make Befaninis. Moreover, on Epiphany’s Eve on 5 January, my mother used to prepare Necci, a kind of crepe made with chestnut flour and filled with fresh ricotta cheese. So yummy. Learn how to make Necci with our recipe.
To discover other food cravings of the Tuscan Christmas tradition, have a look at the post about the Christmas cakes of Tuscany.
Montignoso, the Village of Befana
Montignoso is a small municipality in the province of Massa-Carrara, in northern Tuscany. Here the tradition of Befana is still really vivid, and both adults and children celebrate her with fun and joy. On the night of the Epiphany´s Eve, small groups of people, dressing like the Befana, use 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.
Befana’s Flight in Equi Terme
On January 6, in the village of Equi Terme in northern Tuscany, La Befana flies for real. Through a zipline, an acrobatic Befana on her broomstick flies high in the sky crossing a canyon to reach the nativity cave.
This small hamlet located in Lunigiana hosts every year a wonderful living nativity scene that attracts visitors from all over the region. Here we give all information you need if you want to attend the living nativity scene of Equi Terme.
On the day of Epiphany, three real wise Kings walk around the little alleys to reach the grotto where baby Jesus peacefully lies surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the ox, and the donkey. So does the Befana, flying over visitor’s heads!