La Befana, the Christmas Witch: Italy's version of Santa Claus

A silhouette of a witch on a broomstick appears in front of a full moon, over a snowy landscape
La Befana flying across the night sky on her broomstick to deliver gifts to Italian children

The Roman Catholic church did a fine job of consolidating much of Italy’s belief system in the middle ages, but these were the days when Italy’s disparate regions contained plenty of other pagan traditions, folklore that existed before Christianity alongside the politics of a given district.

Even after Italy’s unification of 1871, plenty of these ancient customs survived, even thrived, as these newly appointed regions attempted to cling onto their own, provincial, history. Take Sa Sartiglia, il Ballo della upa, Palio di Siena, Carnevale di Venezia, celebrated examples of transgressive Italian festivals with traditions that tread an improbable line between pious religious devotion and full-on wicker man paganism.

Most people have an inkling that Christmas day, for example, evolved from a day of mid-season feasting to celebrate the passing of the winter solstice, but outside of a couple of hippies hanging around Stonehenge on the 21st of December, whatever rituals or observances that existed to acknowledge the day before it being called Christmas, in the UK at least, is lost. But not so Italy’s La Befana,

La Befana will be visually familiar because she looks like a witch, complete with raggedy clothes, a pointy hat and a warty nose - she even flies about on a broomstick. She appears annually on the eve of Epiphany (the 5th of January) the twelfth day of Christmas, the one Christians mark as the day that the three wise men greet baby Jesus with gifts.

On a different day, we’d be wondering how this old hag became a blueprint for what we in the west consider ‘a witch’ to look like. Images of women that look and dress like La Befana sat on broomsticks have been seen cavorting with demons in images as early as the 1400s. Images like these helped perpetuate the medieval witch craze, which oversaw the execution of thousands of innocent women. But in Italian folklore La Bafana isn’t at all bad and, despite appearances, she’s not recognised as ‘a witch’ either.

Her origins are, of course, contentious, though we can safely say the Christian version is the least likely, even if her (contemporary) name most probably comes from ‘Epifania’, the Italian for ‘Epiphany’. Despite no mention of her anywhere in the gospels, the story goes that La Befana failed to give directions to the three wise men when they came asking about the location of Jesus, but she did offer them food and shelter which was jolly decent of her.

After the wise chaps left, La Befana decided that she wanted to see Jesus as well, so she gathered some gifts and set off, but she never found him so, instead, she leaves His gifts for other kids; the alternative version of this tale is that she does find Jesus and gifts him up. Whichever way, she comes across quite well in both tales.

Other possible sources of origin, and the most plausible, is via the ancient, pre-Christian, Roman Festival of Saturnalia, a two-week affair that began just before the winter solstice and ended in the new year when the pagans would walk up to the Temple of Juno, stood atop the Arx on Capitoline Hill, to have their futures read by an old woman.

And here it’s not impossible to imagine that it might be in the pagan’s interest to offer the old soothsayer gifts to ensure that they are, in turn, gifted with wellbeing for the new year. It’s also worth mentioning that La Befana's name could also be a derivative of ‘Bastrina’, the word for gifts directly associated with those given to Strenua (or Strenia) the Roman goddess of the new year and wellbeing, who had her shrine at the top of Via Sacra, the man street of ancient Rome, which led to/from Capitoline Hill…

But irrespective of the etymology, little Italian kids these days will recognise La Befana as a magical being who travels around the skies on a broomstick and, after climbing down a chimney, fills the good children’s stockings full of sweets and presents, and the bad kids with a lump of coal -though it’s not really coal, it’s more like a lump of delicious black caramel…

Hang on, access through a chimney? Stockings filled with gifts or coal? Transcendental, unseen, flight? Doesn’t that sound just a bit familiar? Or is it just a coincidence that St Nicholas, the ‘official’ name for Santa Claus, is still celebrated in Eastern Christian countries using the old church Calendar with a day of feasting on the 6th of December, aka the Epiphany?

It would seem that, outside of Italy, Santa Claus has taken on the role of La Befana for the 25th of December. But Santa is well known in Italy... So, what does that mean? It simply means that Italian kids get to be the recipient of gifts from two festive deities, as opposed to the one most of us get. In fact, if you count Santa Lucia, some lucky little Italians get three!

In Northern Italy (and in parts of Scandinavia) Santa Lucia, who is blind, arrives on the 13th of December on board a flying donkey to give gifts and presents to all the good children. The kids even leave out carrots for the donkey and wine for Santa Lucia’s helper, Castaldo.

Enough with the similarities already, if you fancy a true taste of La Befana celebrations in full flow, her spiritual home is Urbania in Le Marche region. They hold a four-day festival for La Befana between January 2-6, and in between heavy drinking and delicious food, you’ll hear the following quoted verse, being sung everywhere.

'La Befana vien di notte

con le scarpe tutte rotte

con le toppe alla sottana:

Viva, viva la Befana!'

Buon Natale!