Italy is home to many wonderful and exciting celebrations throughout the year, but a lesser known one involving La Befana, is one of my personal favorites and one I was lucky enough to experience. This tradition on January 6th marks both the end of Christmas and the day the magi reached Jesus to bring him gifts in Christian beliefs.
La Befana is actually a person who takes the form of an old woman who is ragged and poor, with a broom and warts, much as an American Halloween witch. Put simply, she arrives to visit the families on January 6th every year bringing candy for the good children and coal for the bad while the household is asleep. However, this tradition stemming from the 13th century comes from an old legend.
According to the story, when Christ was born, the three Magi came to visit the baby and bring their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. They stopped at the house of an elderly woman and they passed the word onto her and asked for her to join, but she politely declined, saying that she had much work to do around her house.
However, after some time, she felt as though she hadn’t made the best decision and decided to follow the same star the magi were and set off on foot. Along the way, she left candy in socks on the doorsteps of children, hoping to find the baby Jesus. Now, with the combined ideas of this legend and Santa (who is a much more modern tradition), she will deliver coal to the poorly behave children as well. There is also a forewarning from parents that if you attempt to see La Befana in the night, she will whack you with her broom.
Just like with Santa in the United States, during this time of year, you will see many La Befanas walking around so you can take pictures with them, like the one in the photo above. Some are on stilts, some have warts, some are scary, and some have pointed hats, but all of them are super unique and awesome!
Later in the night after she has brought the candy, there are more celebrations. In fact, in some places La Befana is burned (a fake of course), at a huge bonfire and the whole town celebrates. Supposedly, if the ashes go up it will be a good harvest and a poor one if they go down.
My experience with La Befana was fortunately very personal. Since I was staying with a family, I had the true local experience of having a Befana sock and attending the fire, but also an embarrassing one because I was a foreigner with little Italian skill. It went something like this:
We get there and there is a lot of people, fireworks, and in the middle of it all, a massive bonfire. Stacks of pallets high, this thing is huge, easily the biggest fire I had seen. I immediately start photographing with my Nikon. I am so in awe of this fire that when my host pokes my shoulder, I jumped.
“Hey, there is a La Befana here and if you talk to her she gives you another stocking. You can get cookies and hot chocolate too.”
Free hot chocolate? I’m down. One of her girls takes my arm and walks me to Befana and promptly tells her I am American.
This is about the time I realize La Befana has a microphone. And this audio is being played on loud speakers, meaning the whole population of Lorregia can hear our conversation.
Now is also a good time to reiterate that I hardly know any Italian.
Befana is immediately amused and starts laughing about my confusion as well as cliché American things, such as our then president elect Donald Trump. She asks me questions and I, of course, can not answer, and I desperately look around for my host to translate. She said they asked what state I was from and I responded. Then at this point, La Befana says she speaks English and talks to me. If I am correct, it sounded something like this:
“Ajkvbfjvisfjnvj fnvbksf njvj sj efbskjgijer sfjwb jfbkwurgbbgjw!!”
Also known as, gibberish.
To say the least, I hurried away from that microphone. But then I also realize that the entire town is staring at me. It was like I may have well just landed from Mars. Many were gawking at me even though I looked pretty similar and some even did cheers with their hot chocolate and clapped as I passed. It was mortifying and something I will cherish at the same time.
Of course not every town has traditions like this, some are bigger and smaller, but if you want to stay away from the main tourist season but still celebrate some Italian holidays, I would totally suggest seeing La Befana!