Back to Home




La Befana






This digital collection was produced with financial assistance from Canada's Digital Collections Initiative, Industry Canada.


Home > Heritage > La Befana
La Befana: The Witch of Christmas
By Il Postino Staff and Tessa Derksen
befana.gif The legend of Befana began thousands of years ago and remains to this day a tradition practised by Italian children and their families. As the story goes, one day, the three Magi left their country bearing special gifts of gold, incense and myrrh for the new-born Jesus Christ. They were guided by a star across many countries. At every village that they passed, people ran to meet them and accompany them in their journey.

But there was one old woman who did not join the Magi. She claimed to be too busy with her housework and promised to join them later when she had time. The next day, she realized her mistake and frantically ran after the Magi with gifts for the child, still clutching her broom. But it was too late – the Magi were long gone.


Ever since then the old woman has been known as “La Befana” or simply “Befana.” On the eve of January 6th, Befana flies from house to house on her old broomstick and delivers all the gifts she didn’t give to the Holy Child to good girls and boys.


In fact, Befana’s name is the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphany,” and is significant because the religious feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th. This Christian celebration, in remembrance of the Magi’s visit to Jesus, can include purifying rites and benedictions with water. Water prepared on the eve of the Epiphany (the night that Befana flies the skies) is said to have sacred properties that can ward off evil spirits and is used in critical moments of a family’s life. Celebration of the Epiphany can be traced as far back as the 13th century and is one of the most popular Italian feasts.



In the time when our grandparents were children, Befana was tremendously popular and was awaited with a mixture of joy and anxiety. Children hung hand-knitted stockings on the fireplace and wrote long letters to her expressing their wishes. Often they were disappointed as their families had little money to spend on gifts; however, sometimes they found little hand-sewn dolls and puppets in their stocking. If they had been bad, their stockings were filled with onions, garlic and coal. Although there were no traditional dishes to celebrate this day, people would gather together and eat chestnuts, nuts and fruit pancakes.

Children of today know Befana as an old woman who flies a broom and wears a black shawl over a dress dirty with soot from the chimneys she climbs down to deliver her gifts. For the good children she brings sweets, toys and books. And, as in the past, she brings onions, garlic and coal for the bad children. In modern-day Italy some shops sell carbone or black rock candy that actually looks like pieces of coal.

Many people believe in La Befana’s existence, while others believe it is a fanciful story created for children. But Befana’s question of existence is irrelevant. Either way she still fulfils her function, which is to reaffirm the bond between family and ancestors through an exchange of gifts.


Chant Used by Italian Children


La Befana comes at night
In tattered shoes
Dressed in the Roman style
Long live la Befana!!

She brings cinders and coals
To the naughty children
To the good children
She brings sweets and lots of gifts.


back to the top

Community | Heritage | People | Traditions | Future | Neighbours | Site Map | Credits