Have you ever heard of a friendly witch that delivers presents? La Befana is a fictional figure who is portrayed as an elderly woman, riding a broomstick, wearing a shawl, and covered in soot. On Epiphany Eve, she enters the home of young children through the chimney and leaves them either toys (if they’ve been good all year) or a stick of coal and an onion (if they’ve been bad). Epiphany Eve takes place on January 6th and is the celebration of the arrival of the magi (the three kings/wise men).
Where does La Befana come from and why is she visiting the house of young children on this holiday? There are two common beliefs:
The Endless Search
Legend has it that the magi visited La Befana on their journey to find baby Jesus. They asked for directions and shelter for a night, which she provided, because she was known as the best housekeeper in town. The next morning the magi asked her to join them on their journey, which she declined. Later that day, La Befana had a change of heart and packed a bag full of baked goods for baby Jesus and set off to find him. Unfortunately, she didn’t follow the right path and is still searching for him to this day. Therefore, she continues visiting the houses of all small children looking for baby Jesus.
The Mother of Italy
Another, and a bit darker, legend states that La Befana had a child herself, which she loved with all her heart. Sadly, her child died at a very young age and this drove her mad. After the magi told her about the birth of baby Jesus, she immediately set out to find him, believing that he was her child. She eventually found him and presented him with a bag of baked goods and gifts. Delighted by this kind act, Jesus blessed La Befana with being the mother of every Italian child.
Which legend is believed to be true varies from region to region. Nevertheless, the celebrations take place throughout all of Italy, especially in Urbania. This small community, three hours outside of Florence, is believed to be her hometown and people dress up in witch costumes and hold a big festival with food and drinks in her honor!