Though Christmas Day has come to a close and in the United States our gift-giving season has ended, in Italy the exchanging of presents has just begun. For Italians, December 25th marks the first of the “12 Days of Christmas,” which concludes on January 6, the day of the Epiphany and the arrival of La Befana.
La Befana is a character in folklore who delivers presents to children throughout Italy. It is believed that the legend of La Befana may have originated in Rome, then spread to the rest of the country. It is believed that her name is derived from the Roman dialect of the Italian word for Epiphany, “epifania.”
Legend tells that La Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the January 6 to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal if they are bad. Because she is a good housekeeper, she sweeps the floor before she leaves. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with food for La Befana, who is portrayed as an old lady covered in soot who rides a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts or both.
La Befana, so the legend goes, was approached by the Magi (the Three Kings) a few days before Christ’s birth. She provided them with shelter for a night as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village with the most pleasant home. The Three Kings invited her to join them on their journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart and tried to find the Magi and Baby Jesus, but was not able to find them. So to this day, La Befana is searching for the baby Jesus. She leaves all the good children toys and candy, while the bad children get coal or bags of ashes.
Today, each city in Italy has its own unique way of celebrating La Befana. In the town of Urbania in the Marche region, the national La Befana festival takes place each year during the first week of January. The post office has a mailbox reserved for letters addressed to La Befana, mirroring what happens with Santa Claus in America. Italians dress up in the customary clothes of La Befana and parade through the streets of the small Renaissance town.
In Venice, a most unusual La Befana celebration takes place. The “Befana Regata,” or the race of the witches, entails men dressing up as the witch and racing down the Grand Canal. The competition, which began as a prank over 30 years ago, is now a tradition upheld each year on January 6.