The Legend of La Befana, the Christmas Witch!

Watch the skies on the night of January 5th for a hag on a broomstick that might bring you New Year’s gifts and candy or lumps of coal (and a lump on your head) if you’ve been naughty this year.

The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!

A couple of days ago I received a call from Andrew Coombs, the owner/operator of Grim Trails Haunted Attraction in J-town. He informed me that he was busy adding witches and broomsticks to his annual Christmas displays in tribute to La Befana.

Just assuming he had lost his mind to post Halloween withdraw, I played along.

Good luck with that,” I replied.

Have you ever heard of La Befana, the Christmas Witch,” he asked?

The Christmas Witch? No, although I’m familiar with Krampus and the Eastern European tradition of Krampus Night which takes place annually on December 5th, I had never heard of the Night of the Befana, which takes place annually on the evening of January 5th on the eve of the Feast of Epiphany in Italy.

I had some serious research to do.

Epiphany is a Christian rooted holiday tradition that refers to the “manifestation of the divinity,” or the night when the birth of Christ was revealed to mankind, except in Italian folklore there is apparently a cackling  witch on a broomstick added to everyone’s front yard Nativity scene.

That’s not really accurate. The whole legend of the Befana is entrenched in the idea that she never actually found the Nativity in Bethlehem, and is still eternally searching each year for the birth place of Jesus Christ.

Grab a yule log and I’ll tell you the whole story.

Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!

Befana, an example of the traditional “good witch,” lived in a very tidy and comfortable house where she often spent hours cleaning and sweeping the floors with her broom. One day she was paid a visit by the Magi, the biblical Three Wise Men, who had become lost on their journey following the Star of Bethlehem and needed shelter for the night.

Although she wasn’t able to give them directions to Bethlehem, she did take them in for the night where they revealed to her their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Before the Three Kings left the next morning, they invited Befana to come with them to see the baby Christ child.

Her first instinct was to tell them she was far too busy with her daily cleaning duties to join them on their quest, but some hours after the Three Kings had left to continue their search, she began to regret her decision and decided to try and catch up with them.

She packed a bag full of bread, treats and other gifts for the Christ child and flew off on her magical broom to find the three kings. Having no luck finding the wise men, she continued to follow the star they told her about, but got completely lost along the way, never making it to the manger in Bethlehem.

Centuries later, Befana is still looking, and on the eve of January 5th, she flies around the world stopping by the house of every child she hopes might be the one she is seeking, climbs down through the chimney and leaves sweet treats and gifts for the children she knows have been good and lumps of coal (caramel colored sugar rocks) for those who’ve been naughty.

In the modern Italian tradition, she often leaves a little bit of both, as no child can possibly have been good all year long. She also hates being spotted while at her task and has no problem with whacking anyone over the head with her broomstick who attempts to stay up after bedtime in an attempt to catch a glimpse of her.

Like American children often leave out milk and cookies for Santa Claus, the kids in Italy leave a glass of wine and a pasta dish for the Befana, so I’d imagine she might get a bit tipsy somewhere across the North Atlantic and I recommend substituting coffee or 5-hour energy drinks if you’re hoping she makes it to your house in the States this year.

The Befana is celebrated in huge festivals all across Italy today. The town of Urbania, which is thought to be her home, hosts a festival featuring hundreds of costumed Befanas swinging from the towers while crowds of up to 50,000 people come to watch.

The Piazza Navona in central Rome hosts a Befana market during the days between Christmas and January 6th where you can buy Befana toys and decorations, candies and food. Tradition holds that on the stroke of Midnight on January 6, Befana herself will appear in the window of the Piazza Navona and hundreds come out to watch for her.

I couldn’t verify, in all my research, if all of those hundreds of gawkers annually get bonked in the head by Befana’s broomstick.

There are small pockets of Italian communities in the United States and Canada that still celebrate La Befana, and the Italian World Showcase pavilion at the Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida embraces the whole tradition with costumed storytellers that educate children from all over the world about the Christmas Witch.

So don’t forget before you go to bed on January 5th to leave out some good wine and Italian food for Befana. The legend says that if she really likes your offering, not only will she leave you candies and gifts, she’ll also sweep your floor for you before leaving. No matter what you do, no matter what you hear in your house after Midnight that night, don’t open your eyes. You may regret it if you catch a glimpse of this witch of winter.

The Phantom of The Ville

Write a Review


Comments are closed.