The legend of La Befana, the Christmas Witch

When it comes to holidays with a good witch story, the natural one to come to mind is Halloween.

But it turns out Christmas has a famous witch, too.

Magic and lore have a long camaraderie with the Christmas season. In the centuries before electricity, the shortened hours of daylight and cold weather drove people indoors in the evenings. An oral tradition of spinning spooky stories evolved, which eventually exploded into a written tradition of Christmas ghost stories in Victorian England.

The season also has lighter fare of magical tales – the most enduring story in the United States is the story of Santa Claus, his flying reindeer, and his North Pole toy-making operation.

I’ve long been familiar with stories of Santa and the specters of Victorian England, but it was only this year that I encountered the tale of La Befana.

La Befana, 1821, Bartolomeo Pinelli. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Ruth Cole Kainen.

La Befana is a figure from Italian folklore. Artwork and written accounts depict her as an elderly woman who rides a broomstick and carries a sack of candy to deliver to children. She enters children’s homes by shimmying down the chimney on Epiphany Eve. Like Santa Claus, her gift-giving is based on a naughty-or-nice list. The well-behaved children receive candy or a toy, and the misbehaving children receive coal, onions, or garlic.

Children also should make sure to be in bed and asleep with La Befana comes. Any little scamps who try to catch a glimpse of her may be in for an unpleasant surprise, according to Nikki Crowell in an article about La Befana featured in The Culture Trip: “The children are told that she will give them a swift thump from her broomstick if they try to see her when she arrives, but the tradition could just be to keep kids in their beds.”

As a bonus for Mom and Dad, the story goes that La Befana sweeps the floor of each home before she leaves. She is a legendary housekeeper in Italian folklore.

Instead of setting out milk and cookies for La Befana, families set out a glass of wine and a Christmas treat, such as a slice of a traditional holiday cake like pannetone or pandoro.

La Befana in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy. She brings gifts to children as well as good luck and blessings for the new year.
Naturpuur, Wikimedia Commons

The link between La Befana and Epiphany is a tale about how the Magi (or the Three Wise Men) stopped at her home on their way to Bethlehem. The kindhearted witch gave them food and a place to rest. In return, they asked her to accompany them on their journey to honor Jesus. La Befana declined, but after the Wise Men departed she decided she would make the journey after all. She gathered food and gifts to offer Jesus, but she never found him. Instead, she began distributing her treats to all of the children she met.

The feast of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 in Italy to mark the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. On Epiphany Eve, it’s still traditional for children to set out shoes or stockings for La Befana to fill with sweets. Several cities in Italy also mark the occasion with festivals celebrating La Befana.

Despite going by my maiden name of Stroebel (which hearkens my German roots), I married into a family with strong Italian heritage, and La Befana’s lore has found a home in my household. If she wants to cross the Atlantic on her broomstick, she’s welcome to come down my chimney and sweep my floors on Epiphany Eve. I’ll have a glass of wine and a slice of cake waiting for her.