Wait, what? A witch instead of Santa? Well no, not really. All Italians I know celebrate Christmas the way people do in the US. Of course, some traditions are slightly different, and everybody eats different foods. But the basics are the same: lots of Christmas decorations, a pretty Christmas tree, and of course Christmas presents on December 25th. So, La Befana, or the Italian Christmas Witch as some like to call her, is really an addition to and not a substitute of Santa. And she doesn’t come on Christmas Day either. Instead, she comes to visit Italian children’s homes on the night between January 5th and January 6th. A long time ago, there was no Santa in Italy and Italian children received all their gifts from La Befana. These times are long gone and now Italian children get to celebrate both.
La Befana & Epiphany
Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th and is sometimes called the 12th day of Christmas. For most people it signifies the end of the Christmas season and celebrations. Christmas decorations are taken down, the Christmas tree goes away, and the new year starts. On Epiphany day, Christians celebrate the visit baby Jesus received from the three Kings, or Wise Men. According to Christians all over the world, the three Kings Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar were guided by the star of Bethlehem through the night to find Jesus.
This is where the Italian Christmas witch La Befana comes in. There are many versions of this story, but the most popular one is that the three kings stopped at La Befana’s house to ask her for directions. While she couldn’t help them find Jesus, she did offer them a place to stay for the night. The next morning, the three kings asked her to join them, but she said she was too busy cleaning the house. She later regretted that decision, took her broom, and flew off in search of the three kings and Jesus. Folklore says she never found him, and so she keeps flying through the night and looking for him to this day.
La Befana & Traditions
La Befana is a kind witch and not a scary one – even though she looks like one. On the night of January 5th, Italian kids leave out their stockings. Some also leave out a glass of wine and some food for the kind witch. During the night, La Befana comes for a visit. Some say she comes through the chimney like Santa. Others say she comes through keyholes. She enjoys the wine and food left out for her and leaves sweets and toys in return for the kids who have been good and charcoal for the ones who have been bad. These days, some kids find cute charcoal-like sugary sweets in their stockings instead.
Just like Christmas incorporates a lot of pagan rituals, so too does the celebration La Befana. In a few countries around the world (e.g., Colombia, Ecuador), a puppet of an old lady used to be and still is burned in a big fire in the town square every year around New Year’s Eve. This symbolizes leaving the old year behind and welcoming everything the new year has to offer. In some regions of Italy, the Celtic people who lived there at the time, practiced their own rituals at the beginning of a new year: wicker puppets were set on fire in honor of the ancient gods.
How Epiphany and La Befana are celebrated in Italy today is a weird mix of Christian traditions and Pagan rituals. You are just as likely to find Christian processions and living nativity scenes as you are to find big bonfires on January 6th around Italy. Italia.it has a great summary of different options if you happen to be in the country and want to participate in one of these celebrations.
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