What Is the Italian Feast of La Befana?

Find out how Italians celebrate the Epiphany on January 6 and learn all about the Italian Christmas witch.

Buona Befana! This is the greeting Italians share with one another on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. It marks the end of the holiday season and recognizes the arrival of the three Magi to baby Jesus’ manger. As a religious feast, the Epiphany also is a celebration of the realization that Jesus was God incarnate and thus the Savior.

As a secular holiday, Italians usually have a special meal that includes sweets and bread with their loved ones. And the children get gifts from La Befana. In fact, in my father’s day, there was no Santa Claus or Babbo Natale for Italian kids. There was only La Befana and she came on the night of January 5 while everyone was tucked in their beds. She would leave tangerines, nuts, a pencil for school, and some chocolates in your socks or shoes. They might be near the presepio or nativity scene, which takes precedent over a Christmas tree among Italians.

Nowadays, Babbo Natale comes on Christmas Eve and La Befana still comes on the eve of January 6. But she fills your stocking and only gives little gifts. After all, La Befana is a poor old woman and can’t afford to be as generous as Babbo Natale. Much like Santa, however, naughty children will find coal, known in Italy as carbone, in their stocking.

There are many stories about how La Befana came to exist. In The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola, La Befana is constantly sweeping her house. There was a bright light one night and while she was cleaning, the Magi come and invite her to join them on their journey to Bethlehem. She is cold and, yes, a bit witchy. She doesn’t join them and feels regret.

So, she makes sweet breads and then sets off to find the baby king. Miraculously, her broom ends up carrying her in flight. But she never does find the baby Jesus. So, she spends the eve of the Epiphany continuing to search for him and leaving sweets for good little Italian boys and girls. In fact, she almost always offers up chocolates and candy in the stockings. Kinder eggs, chocolate eggs with a little toy inside, are a favorite around here.

Today, Italians give each other beautiful Christmas stockings filled with sweets for Epifania, which is also known as the feast of la Befana. Some children get a little toy and the chance to take a photo with Befana herself. You might spot her in the piazza. In 2020, Befana will probably visit children in their own homes because of Covid-19. Many grown ups eat panettone, a traditional sweet bread that can be traced to Milan and is served throughout the holiday season. The end of the meal is pretty much the end of the Christmas break and entertaining.

While American kids are used to their witches coming around on Halloween, those who are of Italian ancestry are happy to welcome Befana on January 6. Buona Befana a tutti!

Do you celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, also known as Little Christmas? If so, what do you do to mark the occasion?

Francesca Di Meglio is a veteran reporter who has worked for Bloomberg Businessweek and Ladies’ Home Journal. Visit francescaandantonio.com for her blog.

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