All about Santa Claus’ Italian predecessor
While wandering through the Christmas markets in some of Italy’s most festive cities, you’re likely to see a curious figurine of a witch sold at many of the stands. While it may seem like this little witch is lost in the wrong holiday, she is actually an Italian Christmas icon that predates Santa Claus (Babbo Natale in Italian)!
For hundreds of years, La Befana has been delivering candy to Italian children on the eve of the Epiphany, the Catholic holiday that marks the end of the Christmas season. Depicted as an older, dowdy, cheerful woman who rides a broomstick, La Befana represents the end of the year and uses her broom to sweep away the old and make room for the new. She is often depicted wearing tattered clothing that is covered in soot, as she enters homes through the chimney to deliver her treats (remind you of anyone?).
As the legend goes, La Befana was an old Italian woman sweeping her house when she was visited by the Three Wise Men on their way to meet baby Jesus. The Magi were asking for directions to Bethlehem, as they had veered off of their path, following the brightest star in the sky. La Befana invited them into her home, prepared a meal, and gave them a place to stay for the night. In exchange, the Wise Men told her about their journey and invited her join them when they left the next morning. As La Befana had too much housework to complete, she declined the offer. However, as that night wore on and the bright star guiding the Magi twinkled brighter, La Befana had a change of heart and hurried after them with her broom and a basket full of treats for the baby.
Unfortunately, La Befana could not find the Magi in time, so she gave her treats to the children of Italy instead. Now, each year on the night of January 5, La Befana rides her broomstick across the night sky in search of baby Jesus, gifting children either candies or coal, depending on how they’ve behaved all year. Before leaving each home, La Befana gives the floors a good sweep, representing a clean slate for the new year.
While today, La Befana is sometimes overshadowed by Santa Claus, a relatively new figure in Italian culture, Italian children still delight in leaving out their stockings and shoes in anticipation of being visited by the good witch of Christmas. For some Italian families, Christmas gifts are not exchanged until this happens! It is also traditional to enjoy a slice of panettone before bed, leaving some out for La Befana.
Songs and festivals honor La Befana all over Italy today. If you are lucky enough to be in Rome for the Epiphany, check out the Viva La Befana festival. Want to celebrate this wonderful tradition at home? Check out our collection of Italian chocolates, perfect for enjoying all season long.