There are literally hundreds of different Christmas beings and spirits all over the world. Most notably, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas and his helpers. Sometimes he’s accompanied by elves or his wife Mrs. Claus, and sometimes his sidekicks are a little more terrifying like the Christmas Devil Krampus. But in Italy, there’s Bobbo Natale and the Christmas Witch, La Befana. Who is this jolly, mythical hag that flies around giving gifts to deserving children? Might she be a revenant of an ancient goddess of kindness and fortune?
The Christmas we know today has morphed and evolved into something quite its own over the centuries. Every culture, country, and sometimes individual families have their own special holiday customs and beliefs. Italy is no different.
What I find most interesting is their tradition of La Befana, who is essentially a benevolent, kind witch who gives gifts to children on Epiphany Eve (January 5th). Remind you of someone? Yes, La Befana is similar to Santa Claus, the gift-giving jolly old elf that flies around giving out presents on Christmas Eve. But Befana isn’t a plump old man dressed in red. She’s a haggard old woman covered in soot who flies through the air on her broomstick or on the back of a goat. She carries a heavy sack full of toys and sometimes appears hunchbacked. Befana sends candy and money down the chimneys of children, which then lands in their boots or stockings. That is, if they’ve been good. If they’ve been bad, they’ll find a lump of coal or a stick instead.
Befana, also called Befana La Vecchia (Befana the Crone), is believed to have gotten her name by mispronunciation of the word Epiphania. Epiphania being the Greek word for manifestation and the name for her special day – Epiphany Eve. She’s celebrated all over Italy, including in Sicily, as well as in the Italian region of Switzerland. Her other names include Befania and Befana La Strega (Befana the Witch). Italian families in the United States and elsewhere also seek to keep her tradition alive.
The question I will pose here is this – is La Befana an ancient pagan goddess in disguise? Her feast day, the Eve of the Epiphany, isn’t purely Christian in origin. According to CatholicIreland.com, the modern Epiphany was originally a pagan feast day in ancient Rome and Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians observed the death of Osiris on January 6th, while in Alexandria the people celebrated the birth of their sun god called Aeon on January 5th.
In ancient Greek religion, an epiphany meant the actual physical manifestation of a god or goddess. Whoever was the blessed person to see the deity would be protected from their enemies or showered with an abundance of gifts. Sound familiar?
In later centuries, after the church rose to power, Winter festivals and pagan godly manifestations became Christmas and the Epiphany. In the West, the epiphany is the day when the visit of the Magi is celebrated. And in the East, it’s the Theophany and honors the appearance of father God at Jesus’ baptism.
La Befana’s story, as told today, has a few variations. One tells of the Magi (three wisemen) passing by her home on the way to meet the baby Jesus. They call out to the people in her village, telling them they go to see the new savior and that they bear gifts. Unfortunately, Befana is too busy sweeping her floors and tidying up her house to meet the Magi with gifts for the divine baby. She immediately regrets this and spends the rest of time flying around delivering gifts to children in penance.
Another extremely sad variation of the story tells of Befana losing her firstborn son, and hearing of Jesus’ birth believes he is hers. She flies around looking for the baby and for her lost child. And yet another story tells of Befana seeing a bright light in the sky, and filled with longing for her son, she sets off on her broom in search of him.
The Befana comes at night
In worn-out shoes.
For the small, little children she leaves a lot of little chocolates,
For the bad little children, she leaves ashes and coal.
~ Italian Nursery Rhyme
We know the modernized story of La Befana but why is a witch of all characters associated with such a holy night as Eve of the Epiphany? Strange, isn’t it? Not really. When we dig into the origins of the Winter holidays, we see most of our modern celebrations date back thousands of years to a time before the church. To a time when our ancestors were pagan and believed in multiple gods and goddesses. The truth of the matter is, Jesus wasn’t even born in the Winter. Scholars posit he was born sometime in the Summer. So the church changed his birthday to the Winter holidays to make it easier for the pagans to convert to Christianity.
And La Befana? Have you heard of a witch in the Bible that’s not burned or exiled? I haven’t. The consensus on the Italian Christmas Witch is that she originates in the pagan past of ancient Rome. And likely was once a beloved goddess who protected children and showered her devotees with gifts of abundance and wellbeing.
Some historians believe Befana is the modern, diminished version of the ancient Roman goddess Strenia. Also called Strenua. As a deity whose domain was the New Year, health and purification, these themes definitely align with Befana’s. Her name is the origin of the words strenna and strenae, meaning gifts of money and also words for wellbeing.
In Ancient Rome, Strenia was honored on the New Year with a loud and riotous procession (later discouraged by the church) in which the people would carry laurel twigs from her grove into the citadel. These branches granted the city blessings of abundance and health. Her gifts included coins, dates and figs…just like Befana’s. Interestingly, in later centuries, laurel wood would be used to carve effigies of Befana and burned for good luck. Speaking of wooden effigies and witches…
Cailleach Nollaich (Nollig) is an ancient goddess in Ireland, Scotland and the British Isles whose traditions seem awfully similar to the Italian Christmas Witch. First, Cailleach Nollig’s name means The Old Woman of Christmas. But she’s just as complex a figure as La Befana. Maybe more so. A goddess whose legend covers the landscape in Ireland and Scotland in place names like Glen Cailleach, Hag’s Head at the Cliff’s of Moher and the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb in Cork. We believe La Befana’s worship was once as widespread and as prominent as the Cailleach’s, but the church’s longer presence in Rome washed out the traces.
But how are these two similar besides being associated with the Winter holidays? In Italy, there’s a tradition of carving La Befana’s image into wood and then burning it for good luck in the New Year. And in Scotland, there’s a tradition of carving the Cailleach into a log. And, you guessed it, burning it for good luck and prosperity in the coming year. There’s theories as to whether this is a nod to the Yule log tradition or perhaps it’s sadly a symbolic “burning of the witch”.
And again, another goddess that shows uncanny similarity to La Befana is Berchta, the Germanic goddess of children, Winter, the home and spinning. The most compelling argument is the fact that Berchta’s name corresponds to Berchtentag, which means Night of the Epiphany. According to Jacob Grimm, people would give offerings to Berchta on Epiphany Eve by setting them on the roof so she could partake as she flew over their houses. If she was pleased with their offerings and with the cleanliness of their home, she would grant blessings over the home and protect the children within. Flying? Blessings? Children? Hmm…
It should go without saying that if you’re of Italian heritage or descent, consider including La Befana in your Christmas or Yule traditions.
You can purchase a La Befana doll from an Italian Christmas market, or if you don’t live in Italy find one online. If you want to make your own, even better! Be sure to include her hat, broomstick, and little sack of gifts. Place her in the window to bring blessings in this holiday season, just as many families in Italy do today.
Keep the old tradition of burning her effigy alive by carving your own Befana log, purchasing one, or simply writing her name on a branch. Then burn it on Epiphany Eve to bring blessings of health and prosperity in the New Year. Some sources claim an ugly Befana branch is ugly because it represents the end of the year. Once it’s burned, it makes way for beauty and rebirth in the New Year.
Instead of Santa Claus, or in addition to Santa Claus, keep the La Befana gift-giving tradition going. Leave offerings of wine, chocolate, espresso, or traditional Italian food near the fireplace. As Befana flies over on Epiphany Eve (also called Befana Eve), she’ll “partake” in your offerings and leave gifts of candy, sweets, coins, and the like in the children’s stockings or boots (also placed by the fireplace).
Befanini cookies, also called Befana cookies, are a traditional sweet baked in the Tuscany region of Italy during the Christmas holidays. Some families even wait until Epiphany or Befana to bake them, as sort of a last holiday hurrah and in honor of La Befana. They are similar to a sugar cookie and decorated with sprinkles. In the old days, families who couldn’t afford gifts for the kids would fill their Befana stockings with Befanini cookies, figs, dates, nuts and tangerines.
A fun, fairly new Befana tradition is to bake “coal” or candy “sticks” as a representation of the coal or sticks left by La Befana for the naughty children. The coal is made from oreos and the sticks are chocolate-coated pretzel sticks.
There’s a crisp hint of magic in the air. And a sense of warmth and …September 21, 2023