Jan 5, 2010

Befana in Italy

Tonight, while everyone is asleep, La Befana will be coming to our house and filling my son's stocking with little gifts and candy. He will find it tomorrow morning, like many other children in Italy. We will leave out a small glass of red wine and some soft breadcrumb for her to snack on (the Befana likes her vino, but her bad teeth can only tolerate softer foods). She is not scary–although her features are less than pretty–and kids love her. Unfortunately younger generations are starting to forget how important she really is.

The befana is not a witch, as she is often recently portrayed. She's an ugly, hunched-over old woman in a raggedy scarf that sometimes flies on a broomstick (or rides a donkey) and brings happiness to children. Before Santa dethroned her, overtaking the global commercialization of Christmas, in many parts of Italy it was only la Befana who brought gifts to children on the Twelfth Night, marking the end of the holiday season. December 25th was solemnly celebrated as the birth of Jesus, a big family reunion, and involved eating lots of good food–period. No gifts.

The name Befana is the corruption of the word epifania, Italian for 'Epiphany.' That's when, on January 6th, Christians commemorate the visitation of the Magi to the Baby Jesus.

The Befana is a pagan figure belonging to Roman folklore, but according to a more religious version, her story is linked to the Three Wise Men from the Orient.

On their way to Bethlehem to bring Baby Jesus their precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar got lost on the way (winter clouds momentarily shrouding the comet?).

They happened upon an old woman standing in her cozy doorway, and asked her for directions. Despite the Magi's insistence she follow them to visit the Child, the woman peremptorily refused to accompany them. Later, feeling guilty for her harsh dismissal, the old woman prepared a jute sack filled with sweets and gifts for the Babe and set out to catch up to the Three Kings, unsuccessfully.

She stopped at every home on the way, dispensing her delicious bounty to the children she'd meet, in the hope that one of them was the newborn Jesus.

From that day, every year on the night before January 6th, she is said to roam the world, giving gifts to children, in exchange for forgiveness.

La Befana proverbially loads stockings with method: a fresh tangerine at the toe, and then pieces of unwrapped bubble gum, assorted candies, gianduiotti, lollipops, chocolate coins for prosperity, a few symbolic small toys and trinkets–like stickers or crayons–and whatever she feels is right for the child in question.

Those who haven't been good find their stocking filled only with coal, but that rarely happens! Just to keep the tradition alive, every stocking must contain at least one chunk of crumbly black sugar, shaped like a lump of coal.

One larger gift is displayed near the stocking, unwrapped and ready to be played with.

I've spoken to the Befana, and she tells me this year my son will be getting a brand new bicycle with training wheels!

Buona Befana!


  1. Fascinating story about la Befana.

  2. Oh how fun it is to live in Italy on Jan. 5. I dressed up last year as La Befana and handed out treats to friends (and garlic cloves too). Everybody enjoyed the good laugh.

  3. Yep, I spoke to her too and shes coming over tonight! Thank you for the insights, I didnt know what the tradition was.

  4. I have always love the older Christmas postcards with pictures of her. I don't have any in my collection of Father Christmas cards. Typically like a mom I think she was much tougher to convince of good behavior than Santa was.

  5. I absolutely love learning about how different cultures celebrate the seasons. What a charming insight into a wonderful Italian tradition. Thank you for sharing and I hope that your little one is delighted when he awakes.

  6. intriguing...i did not know this tale until now...i do hope that e enjoys the bike. my boys love theirs. it opens up so much adventure....though you may have a hard time keeping up with him now. smiles.

  7. What a wonderful story!
    I`d like to dress up as la Befana and ride on a donkey! Maybe in ten years I`ll be wrinkled enough? Must laugh some more) Happy New Year, Lola and E!

  8. Thank you for your visit, friends!

    Berowne~ Ciao! Glad you enjoyed.
    CC Linda~ How fun about the garlic! Expecting vampires, were you?
    Ruth~ Do you have a fireplace? Don't light it tonight then... she's coming thru there!
    LoriE~ She is indeed. I can send you a postcard of la befana if you like.
    Consummate Hostess~ Thank you for your sweet comment!
    Brian~ It'll be a good workout for both of us :)
    Geli~ You could never be la befana, you're too gorgeous!

  9. This brought back lots of memories. Thanks, Lola.

    E will love his gift.
    Buona Befana!

  10. Rosaria~ It's always my pleasure to stir up your Italian memories! Hugs

  11. I loved la Befana & wish I were in Italy today for the celebrations. She will be here, too, but not as much fun.


  12. The candy made from zucchero nero is a wonderful tradition. I like the fact that the gift emphasis is shifted away from Christmas. Thanks for sharing this.

  13. Yep, lol. We will be freezing tonight, wouldnt like risking burning the befana, my son would never forgive!

  14. With us she comes tomorrow early evening, still on a donkey and brings everyone, including us small gifts. Usually some wee oranges and nuts and a handmade calendar with photos of our village. I must keep a few coins ready that she usually collects for a children's charity.

  15. Fascinating, Lola. I've never heard this story before. I learn so much from following your blog.
    Funny, Santa forgot to put chocolate money in my kids' stockings this year (he ALWAYS gives it!) and I this morning thought maybe he could give it tonight...now the befina can do his work for him!

  16. It's good to have access to la Befana! I'm sure your son will be extremely happy. ;-)

  17. Hi Lola, great story... if you have a direct connection to her, can you please ask her to stop by our place tonight ?

    Hope you are well, and best wishes to you for an excellent 2010, full of good food and good cheer, good health and good company...

    Ciao !

  18. Oh, that is so delightful! I didn't know the whole story about La Befana. I can just picture her trying out your son's new bicycle before deciding to leave it for him, cackling away in delight.

  19. I am fascinated as always, Lola! Wish I was Italian :).

  20. I loved this!!! What a delightful tradition...and the story of her search for forgiveness is so beautiful...seems so much more meaningful than simply a story of elves,a workshop and the North Pole...Congrats on your column as well, dear Lola!!! You are moving in fast circles!!! That's wonderful!!! ~Janine XOXO

  21. You leaving these comments are even more generous than la befana!

    Giulia~ You can always stop here at my blog for a true taste of authentic Italy. Cats here say "miao"
    ChuckP~ I am happy you liked it.
    Ruth~ It would be a terrible mistake!
    Heiko~ Wonderful. I love to hear how different places have different traditions stemming from the same root. Thank you for sharing it with us here.
    Mimi~ Definitely, I'll be sure to tell her :)
    Jen~ He loves it! And I do too :)
    Owen~ I hope so too!! Ciao and happy 2010 to you.
    Louciao~ It is so much fun! ;)
    Meredith~ You are, when you come here!
    Janine~ The forgiveness is my favorite part too. Glad you enjoyed


  22. I love learning from you.

    thanks lola :)

    ribbon x

  23. Hello beauty what a story.

    Happy New Year.

    Love Renee xoxo

  24. Hi Lola. Great to learn about la Befana on the 5th of January! I've been enjoying reading through your older posts, too. Wishing you a fantastic 2010 :)

  25. Why did I not see this earlier, Lola? It is truly fascinating and I like the idea of Befana much, much more than our vastly over commercialized Santa. What a great idea to keep the Christmas period sacred and clean and then at Epiphany when it is all over deliver the presents to our little ones. Much better, but alas, our commercial world demands ever more and more sales to keep our flagging economies afloat.
    Little E deserves his bicycle with training wheels.
    Love Eddie x

  26. My best Christmas ever was spent in a small castle outside Modena. A large presepio filled half the dining room, no Christmas tree around. Christmas Eve was spent dining on fish and seafood for seven hours, from 4 to 11pm when we went to church for midnight mass. Hemlock trees, decorated only with white lit wax candles, filled every nook and cranny of the church. The last carol sung was "Silent Night" - I can still hear that choir, slowly fading as we walked out into the night. The little boy in the family did not receive his gifts until la Befana arrived. He was allowed to decorate the large hemlock tree in front of the castle with the help of his father. Huge colorful glass baubles lit up at night.

  27. I love this tradition! We are very secular in celebrating Christmas, because neither of us like all of the commercial christmas hype. This is such a sweet and exciting notion...
    I sense a change next year in the Panchot household. xo

  28. Bravo for la Befano and for her good taste in drinking red wine instead of milk - so much more civilized, certainly. I used to hate dumping the milk my boys left out for Santa!
    That bike must have been a heavy loan for the donkey!

  29. I never knew this story, I'm so glad you shared it Lola!
    By now little e will have gotten his new bicycle, I imagine he was thrilled! and you too.

  30. How I love to read your warm comments! Thank you

    Ribbon~ Same here, I learn so much from YOU! Ciao
    Renee~ Ciao my sweet friend.
    Karen~ A lovely 2010 to you too, friend.
    Eddie~ If each of us would contribute a little in cutting down on the commercial side of Christmas, we could start a true revolution!
    Merisi~ That sounds a lot like my childhood Christmases.
    Kim~ Lovely! Let me know how it goes.
    RNSANE~ She's a very strong lady...!
    Lori ann~ He LOVES it, and in these rainy days has been riding inside the house, which is too small a bike path!

  31. Wine and bread crumbs? Huh! My sons and I always leave her cookies, a mandarin orange and chocolate milk. Must be my American influence!

  32. I remember the business about Jan 6 being the day children got presents. My mother being Italian, that was the way it worked at our house, in England. It was only when I started kindergarten that things got complicated. The children were talking about Christmas presents ... We eventually compromised: Christmas presents AND befana presents!