Yay, Christmas! The only good thing about the days getting shorter, the nights getting longer, and weather getting nasty and cold. Glorious Christmas with its decorated evergreen trees and sparkling lights and … witches??
Well, yeah. If you’re Italian, odds are it’s not Santa Claus (known there as Babbo Natale) who brings you presents (unless you’re really lucky and he visits anyways), but La Befana, the Christmas Witch. No, I’m not kidding; in Italy there’s been a long-held belief that instead of a chubby, white-bearded guy hauling gifts to your house on Christmas Eve via your chimney, it’s a broomstick riding granny (though she’s sometimes said to ride a goat or donkey too), an honest-to-goodness good witch who rewards good children with candy and presents and bad ones with coal, onions and garlic on January 5th, the Eve of the Epiphany—also through the chimney.
Up on the rooftop/donkeys trod/down comes good ol‘ Befana …
Over two thousand years ago, as the story goes, the elderly Befana was alone at home, doing her chores and cleaning when she heard a knock at her door. Opening it, she was surprised to see three extremely well dressed men huddled outside. They introduced themselves as magi, sages from the East, in search of a king that was recently born under a bright star—a star they pointed out to Befana. They were tired of traveling, and needed a place to recover before heading on to meet this special child, called the Son of God.
Befana, being a kind old lady, immediately invited them to get warm, served them food and showed them a place to sleep. The wise men were touched by her generosity, and told her more about this child, who had been prophesied to grow up to be a prophet and king of the Jews. They invited her to join them on their journey when they left in the morning. Befana politely declined, saying that she had too much work to do at home, but wished them well.
Some time after the wise men had left, Befana started thinking about this miraculous child, and realized what a mistake she had made in not going with the three scholars. She then began to think about how the baby’s mother must be very tired and without the necessary things she needed for a household, so Befana packed a basket of goodies and took her broom to help sweep up. Thinking that if she moved quickly she could catch up to them, Befana locked up her house and started out in the direction she had seen the three wise men go, following the bright star.
Unfortunately, Befana became lost, and wandered the length of Italy without ever finding the Christ-child. Somehow in her searching she transformed into a kindly witch, and once a year she rides her broomstick to every child’s house in Italy, searching for the infant Jesus and leaving behind gifts she would have given him if she had found him, especially since the Christ-child is said to exist in every child.
That’s the standard story most Italian kids know. A sadder version tells how Befana had recently lost her own child or children to a plague or to King Herod’s soldiers, and the thought of seeing another baby made her too sad, so she declines the wise men’s invitation, only to change her mind afterwards. A somewhat more twisted version has Befana going insane after losing her baby, and starts believing that the infant Jesus is actually hers, who had been taken from her. The version I like starts out the same as I wrote above, but instead Befana actually meets baby Jesus, gives him presents and helps clean up the stable for Mary. Jesus is so delighted by Befana’s kindness that he grants her the ability to show that kindness to every child in Italy once a year. (Other stories say that Befana is part fairy and has a house full of elf-like creatures who make toys. Another story claims that Befana has a make helper called Befano.)
Still doesn’t explain what the three wise men were doing in Italy, though.
Like Santa Claus, La Befana comes down the house’s chimney to leave gifts for children. She will put fruit and candy in the stockings of good children, and a piece of coal, a garlic or onion bulb, or a piece of dark candy in the stockings of bad kids (though she commonly leaves a small piece of dark rock candy in the stockings of good kids, because even good ones have their moments.) In Sicily, she will leave a stick in lieu of coal.
Because Befana was very fastidious with her cleaning in life, she will take the time to sweep up the family’s home for them, especially since she tracked in soot from the fire place, and in doing so sweep away all the bad luck from the previous year. If any kids try to sneak a look at Befana as she totters about their home, they’ll be out of luck; Befana makes herself invisible, and she often whaps the little sneaks with her broomstick to get them back into bed. Children often write letters to her the same way they write to Santa, and while many kids leave milk and cookies for Santa, Italian kids leave Befana a glass of wine and a plate of sausages and broccoli! They may even leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese, because Befana is so old that she doesn’t have any teeth left and prefers soft foods.
Why does Befana visit houses on the Epiphany and not on Christmas Eve, like Santa does? The Epiphany (January 5th) was the day that the three wise men found Jesus, Mary and Joseph and bestowed their gifts upon the baby. Befana didn’t get to see Jesus that day, so she ventures out every Epiphany in hopes that she will see him that year. In addition, “Befana” is likely derived from the muddling of the word Epifania, Italian for “Epiphany.”
Still, you’re probably wondering why La Befana is a witch. It’s theorized that Befana is actually a reimagining of Strenua or Strenia, the Roman goddess of the new year and good fortune. In Italy, Christmas gifts used to be called strenna (which comes from the Roman word strennae, which were gifts exchanged at New Year’s), which sounds a lot like strega, the Italian word for “witch.”
For many years Befana was not widely known outside of Rome and central Italy (lending strength to the theory that she was once the Roman goddess Strenia), but has grown in popularity, especially when she was immortalized in sonnets and music in the 19th century. Many Italian cities have Befana festivals on January 5th and 6th, and Italians claim that on midnight on January 6th La Befana peeks out the windows of Piazza Navona, and will go there to see her. In Urbania, which is thought to be Befana’s hometown, the Befana festival is from January 2nd to the 6th, and features a Befana house (kind of like Santa’s workshop) and a mailbox where children can drop off their letters.
The Russians (apparently) have their own version of La Befana, only their kindly old lady is called Babushka (Russian for “grandmother,” and not the lady on the grassy knoll in Dallas.) The stories are almost identical, though this time Babushka tells the wise men that she’ll catch up with them after she finishes her chores (another version says she didn’t want to travel at night and decided to go in the morning), and opts to bring baby Jesus some nice toys. She was never able to catch up with the three wise men and, because she forgot to ask them the way to Bethlehem, spends many years wandering, looking for Jesus. I personally don’t know if this is an actual legend told by the Russians, as I’ve read very little about Babushka, and some people have suggested that the Russians never believed in her at all and that she was invented/stolen by the poet Edith Matilda Thomas. If anybody knows the truth, please let me know!
In the meantime, I have to send a copy of my wish list to Befana.
Here’s an ad from the 2016 Befana Festival, if anybody’s interested!