International Santas: La Befana, Italy’s Christmas Witch

An old woman gazes through a frosted pane on Christmas Eve. She knows it’s time again. With no small effort, she stands. In preparation for the night’s events, she meticulously arranges her shawl, pulls with knotted fingers at her darned socks and ragged skirt. Past transgressions bind her to a strange annual deed: she must travel the globe, passing judgment on the world’s children, giving both gifts and punishments.

Such is the life of poor La Befana, described as a sad, old woman in some Italian traditions, a bold witch or benevolent fairy in others. Sometimes she rides a broomstick, flying through keyholes and, like Santa Claus, down chimneys to deliver her goods of trinkets, fruits, nuts, and sweets. Some children welcome her by scribbling their holiday wishes on scraps of paper and allowing them to float up the chimney; some children fear her.

la befana final

Illustration by Lucy Burrows

The stories of her origins are peculiar. In one, the three magi stop to ask her for directions, and she unwisely refuses to join them on their journey to Bethlehem. Although she later realizes her mistake and tries to catch up to them, she’s too late! Her hasty decision dooms her to an eternity enslaved to annual gift-giving or searching for the baby Jesus. In another, La Befana is tied to pagan beginnings. She was celebrated in December for giving life throughout the year, and her mythology has braved the path to the modern world—with a few tweaks.

In some towns, La Befana is celebrated in annual parades and with tunes and poems. In one song collected by Stanley Gee, La Befana descends, fairy-like, filling hearts with joy and bearing gifts for all dear children who promise to be good:

la sui monti scendeva la neve
ed il vento soffiava di già
e scendeva con un passo lieve
una fata si cara a voi già
quella fata che tanto ci ama
che pure ogni anno ci viene a trovar
è  arrivata con noi la Befana
ogni cuore si sente gioir
fra le valli, paese e contrade la nostra Befana
è arrivata fin qui
ha portato un gran sacco di doni
li vuol dare ai suoi cari bambini
che promottono d’essare buoni con le mamma a pappa il

For more on La Befana, check out the following sources.

Sources

Gee, Stanley. “Some Notes on Italian Folk Customs.” Folklore 93 (1982), 93–97.

Giglio, Michael. “Taking Flight with Italy’s Holiday Witch.” Spiegel Online International, December 12, 2008. Accessed 2011. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,596060,00.html.

Marinoni, Antonio. “Popular Feasts and Legends in Italy.” The Sewanee Review 24 (January 1916) 69–80.

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Allison Harper

Allison is the manager of social media marketing at Rosetta Stone. She holds a B.A. from Harvard University. She lives in D.C. She retains her Texas "y'all."
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