The Christmas Witch – La Befana

In Italy, children are often given presents during the Christmas season. It starts with St. Nicholas on 5 and 6 December, on Christmas Day, 25 December, Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) or the Bambino Gesù (Baby Jesus) brings the presents and on 6 January the Befana comes and presents the children with sweets, presents and sweet coal in memory of the three holy kings. La Befana” (from Epiphany, the church feast of the Three Kings Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar) is the name given to the mystical figure, an old, ugly but also kind lady or witch, who comes from Italian peasant folklore. According to legend, “La Befana”, sitting at her loom, heard the good news from the shepherds and the three holy kings that the Christ Child had been born. The Christmas star was supposed to lead the good witch and the three holy kings to the manger in the holy land. But the old woman wanted to finish weaving and then follow. But because the witch Befana set out too late and the Christmas star had already gone out in the sky, she could no longer find the Christ Child.

La Befana, Italy.   (foto ©  fotolia.com)

La Befana, Italy

During the Epiphany celebrations, an old woman brings sweets to good children and coal to naughty children. Lake Como, Italy   (foto © DARRAY / Shutterstock.com) 

La Befana, the Christmas Witch comes to the children in Italy on 06 January

Outwardly, the Befana is depicted as an old, ugly witch, but she is generally regarded as a good and wise witch who comes into the houses via the chimney and fills the stockings and shoes provided by the children with sweets and treats or puts presents under the Christmas tree. Even the naughty children get something from the Befana, namely Carbone dolce (sweet coal). The sweet coal is not real charcoal, of course, but sweet sugar mass coloured black. The children also prepare a gift for the Befana, namely a plate with a tangerine or orange and a glass of wine. Of course, the next morning the fruit is eaten and the glass of wine drunk, and there are also traces of charcoal on the plate.

In the fascist era, the “Befana fascista” was celebrated on the occasion of the Epiphany from 1928. This was a charity event organised by the partito fachista – the Italian fascist party – at which gifts were distributed to needy and poor children. This charitable custom continued even after this ominous period.

La Befana, Italy.   (foto ©  fotolia.com)

In honour of the good Christmas witch Befana, this rhyme is often recited:

La Befana vien di notte (The Befana comes by night).
con le scarpe tutte rotte (with her broken shoes)
col cappello alla romana… (with her Roman hat)
VIVA VIVA LA BEFANA! (long live the Befana)

Video: Gianni Morandi sings the song of the good Christmas witch Befana

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