With her pointy hat, wart-covered nose, and a broomstick, Befana looks ready to attend an American Halloween party. But Befana is actually an Italian witch who comes out during the Christmas responsible for bringing presents, toys, and candy to good little children on the night of the Epiphany.
The Epiphany holiday is celebrated in both Eastern and Western Christianity, and in some regions like Spain and France the holiday is known as the Three Kings' Day. The holiday marks the arrival of the magi, the three wise men who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to honor the birth of the baby Jesus.
The Catholic Church began celebrating the holiday around the 4th Century and merges pagan rituals surrounding the winter solstice with Christian feasts. It was during this period of time when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the primary religion in the empire, and holidays with both traditions appeased citizens who worshiped the old gods. The Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, twelve days after Christmas, and those days between Christmas and the Epiphany are the origin of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas.
The Epiphany is a major holiday in Italian religious traditions. Families historically had exchanged gifts not on Christmas morning, but on the Epiphany, and children today still often receive a gift on that day. In Italy, the holiday is known as L'Epifania, and this is the origin of the name for the witch, la Befana, a corruption of the phrase.
The legend of Befana begins 2,000 years ago. On the road to Bethlehem, the magi lost track of the star guiding them to the birth of Christ. Uncertain of where to go, they came across an elderly woman sweeping her cottage clean. They begged her for directions explaining their intention to visit the newborn baby, a king of kings. So excited about the baby, the wise men even invited the woman to join them on their quest.
Insisting she was too busy tending to her cottage, Befana continued sweeping and sent the three wise men on their way. Soon after, Befana had a change of heart. Wanting to make amends for her treatment of the wise men, she decided to bring sweets to the new baby. However, despite searching door to door, she never found the baby they spoke of. The relentless witch continues each year to seek out children and distributes treats and gifts to them while searching for the newborn king.
While Befana's story shows a Catholic connection, the mythology also draws on pagan mythologies. In some legends, she is a pagan priestess and symbol of the goddess of nature. This allegorical reading of Befana is of a matronly figure also symbolizing the rebirth of a new year.
The broom she had once swept her cottage with now provides her with transportation, and she flies through the night bringing with her good fortune. If her flight should cross a field, she ensures fertility and a healthy harvest in the coming year.
Among the pagan traditions were yearly bonfires. Puppets representing the ancient gods were burned as part of the annual cycle of rebirth. Befana, as a priestess, was included in the ritual and today many regions in Italy continue the bonfire traditions. Bonfire traditions were quite common in the Alps of Italy, and in the 4th century, Celtic tribes exerted a strong pagan influence on the regional culture, especially as the Roman empire contracted.
These bonfires are also the origins of Befana's gift of coal to naughty children. Initially, the charcoal produced by bonfires represented fertility. Over time, the tradition has evolved, and like her red-suited competitor, naughty children receive it as punishment. Many children today receive coal-colored sugar candy in addition to presents, recognizing that even good children can misbehave sometimes.
The bonfire traditions spread south from the Alps. In Venice, large bonfires are still lit as part of the epiphany known as Panevin. In this region, locals gather to burn old branches, drink mulled wine, and eat a special cake with candied fruits known as pinsa. The fires are burned to purge the previous years' negativity. In some regions like Emilia-Romagna, the fires are known as brusa la vecia or brusavecia, meaning to burn the old lady. These bonfires include an enormous puppet of the old witch at the top of the pyre. The depictions of the witch show an ugly woman with a jagged face rather than the more gentle grandmother figure.
In Urbania, in Le Marche region, city officials set up a House of La Befana in the town hall and claim the city as Befana's home. Urbania has hosted a National Festival of Le Befana featuring a parade of assistants and the official opening of her house. Thousands gather to celebrate and watch as she flies from the bell tower into the square.
In the Piedmont region, a typical cake known as Fugasa D’la befana is often served during Epiphany. The round cake is baked to look like a daisy. The rich golden yellow cake is sweeter than panettone but similarly filled with candied fruits. And usually, this cake is baked with a surprise inside – a dried fava bean – and whoever bites into the slice with the bean wins a prize. The tradition is similar to the French Galette des Rois, which includes a féve, meaning fava bean.
In Sicily, Befana arrives in a much less elegant method. Near the village of Gratteri, she is said to live in a cave, and from she arrives in town riding a donkey. Here, Befana suffers for the collective sins of the village, and each year she does penance to ensure happiness in the village. She is wrapped in a white cloth, and from her handsome steed, she distributes gifts to children before returning to her cave for another year. The donkey has no known relation to Dominick.
Modern interpretations of the witch usually depict Befana as a kindly old woman, and she features prominently in children's songs. Folksongs featuring Befana also describe her broken shoes, explaining why she needs to ride a broom. And in the United States, Italian American illustrator and author Tomie de Paola published the now classic The Legend of Old Befana, a children's tale of the old woman's search for baby King.
Befana's connection to mother nature has meant in modern times she has also come to symbolize environmentally conscious secularism. Counter-culturalists celebrate her presence in the holiday as a sign of anti-consumerism sentiment, and anti-commercialization of the holiday intended to celebrate family and friends.
She commonly is seen throughout the entire Christmas season and witches of all sizes are sold at holiday markets as decorations, tree ornaments, and even figurines made for the presepi, the elaborate scenes, and model villages Italians build and display to celebrate the nativity.
Befana's popularity spread across Italy in the early 1900s as an icon of the holiday in a newly united nation. Since then, while she still brings gifts, she has since been overshadowed by the more popular Santa Claus. His rise also corresponds with the shift of gift-giving from the Epiphany to Christmas Day. Today, Befana is likely to leave children small presents in stockings or in their shoes.