Befana: Italy’s Good, January Witch

Today’s story is about an Italian holiday that comes in January.  Enjoy…

Befana on broom cartoon

Father Christmas, or Babbo Natale, is a relative newcomer to Italy. Long before he showed up, Italian children waited excitedly for the 6 January and their visit from a very witchy-looking old lady called La Befana.

Like our Halloween witches, she has a long bumpy nose and rides a broom. But she is a nice old hag and carries a bag of gifts which she distributes to good children all over Italy. Her name is thought to come from the word Epiphany (or Epifania in Italian) which is the name of the religious holiday with which she is associated.

This is her story…

About 2000 years ago, when the baby, Jesus, was born, three Kings started out on their journey to find him. They were guided by an extra-bright star, but one cloudy evening they were a bit lost and stopped to ask directions at the house of an old lady. She was known for keeping a spotless home, and she was always busy dusting, mopping, and sweeping.

She couldn’t offer the Kings any directions, as she didn’t know where the baby was, but she did give them clean lodging for the night. The next day, the Kings invited the woman to go with them, but she declined, saying she just had too much housework to do. However, as she was cleaning, she kept thinking about finding the Baby Jesus and decided that she had made a mistake and should have gone with the Kings to find him.

Befana with the three kings

She packed a bag of sweets and gifts for the baby and took a new broom as a gift for the mother (to encourage good housekeeping habits). She hurried along to try and catch up with the Three Kings, but she was too late. She didn’t know which direction they had gone and she was lost and tired. As she lay down under a tree to try to get some sleep, an angel appeared and turned her ordinary broom into a magic mode of transportation.

She climbed onto her broom and flew from house to house, searching for Baby Jesus. She left a gift for every child – just in case one of them was the Holy Infant… And she is still doing the same thing today.  Every January 5 evening she flies around Italy leaving gifts for the children to find the next morning.

Italian children now expect a visit from the Befana and prepare for her arrival. They leave her a little snack and a glass of red wine to wash it down. She flies down the chimney on her broom and after her snack and vino, she fills the stockings that the children have left hanging by the fireplace. Often, she even helps the mothers out by sweeping up with her magic broom before leaving.

Befana and Santa Claus
The Epiphany puts an end to all the holidays.

The Befana has the power to know if a child has been naughty or nice and fills their stockings accordingly. In the old days, children who misbehaved would get a lump of coal or a stick. Today, most children get gifts in their stockings with a few little pieces of black sugar candy shaped like a lump of coal… because no one can be good all the time.

*In France we don’t have an Epiphany witch, but we have an Epiphany cake called la galette des rois. You can read about it here: The King Cake Holds a Surprise.

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*Image credits: Image 2, Image 3, Image 4


    1. Well, I guess Befana finishes off the Christmas holidays, but the festivities never really end. The next big one is Carnival in February. Then Easter in March… Then… 😉

  1. Great story, but a little sad, too! The poor Befana! She never finds the baby Jesus or the three wise men and she has to work so hard!

  2. Another lovely tale Margo. I like the fact that Befana might even sweep up afterwards. I spent Christmas with my grandson [and his parents!] and Santa Claus and his reindeer left quite a mess behind! Bonne Année.

    1. Hi Lisa, Bonne Année to you too! I’m sure you had a lovely time with your grandson at Christmas.
      Maybe next Christmas, you should get Santa a new broom?

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