La Befana: Ancient Goddess, Santa’s Precursor, or Christmas Witch?

I was hooked the first time I heard about her: La Befana, the “Christmas Witch.” The first figure I saw of her while traveling in Italy was an elderly “nonna” (grandmother) who was dressed in peasant clothing with a kerchief around her head. She was riding a broom and had a bag of goodies. What’s not to like about THAT? A friend of mine recently brought me one from Italy that looked like a leftover Halloween witch. She even wore an orange skirt and a pointy hat.

Needless to say, there are many layers of tradition and stories that go into the creation of La Befana. The earliest layer is that some believe she is descended from the Sabine/Roman Goddess Strenia (Strenua), the goddess of the new year year, purification and well-being. She name appears to be the origin of strenae, the gifts Romans exchanged at the beginning of the year as good omens for the coming year. These gifts often included figs, dates and honey. Not surprisingly, several sources say that La Befana brought these same gifts to Italian children in her earliest incarnation. Thus, the tie between the two is rather convincing.

The next layer of La Befana occurs around the 8th century when she began to appear in Italian folklore in connection with the celebration of Epiphany. In fact, her name, most likely comes from the Italian word for Epiphany, “epifania.” If you’ve read my blog you know that the goddess often got adapted and incorporated into Christian theology and practice. (Brigid is the best example.) So it’s not surprising that this most likely occurred here as well.

The story that is told about her is a really weird but delightful one. Here’s one version of the legend:

La Befana lived alone in a house in the hills of Italy. She spent her days cooking and cleaning like all good nonnas do! One night she noticed a bright light in the sky. After some thought, La Befana decided to ignore the light and go back to sleep.
A few days later, a caravan led by Three Wise Men stopped at La Befana’s house to ask for directions to Bethlehem. La Befana offered them hospitality. In return, the Wise Men invited her to come with them to visit Baby Jesus. She declined, saying she had too much work to do. But later she changed her mind.
She then packed a basket with baked goods and gifts for the newborn child. She grabbed her broom (because the new mother would certainly need help cleaning), and tried to catch up with the Wise Men.
After she had walked a long distance angels appeared to her and gave her the gift of flight. So she hopped on her broom and continued to search for the Christ Child. She is still searching to this very day, and every Epiphany, she visits homes throughout Italy, giving gifts to every child she finds along the way. Over time, she has come to realize that the Christ Child can be found in all children, so her search is not in vain.

Her final layer is the more modern folklore tradition that may be somewhat freed of its Christian adaptation. La Befana visits all the children of Italy on Epiphany Eve (January 5) by magically sliding down the chimney on her broom. She leaves candy, treats and presents if you’re good, and a lump of coal or black candy if you’re bad. Yeah, I know, that sounds a lot like Santa Claus so she may also be the precursor to the legends surrounding the jolly old man himself! Another tradition is that La Befana also sweeps the floor before she leaves since she is such a good housekeeper.

My “Befana” figure purchased in Italy

The final piece of the puzzle is her reputation as the Christmas “witch.” I see no evidence of her being a “Strega” (Italian witch) but am open to any information you have to share. It seems to me that since she rode a broom in early folkloric traditions and has the magical power to slide down a chimney, it’s not surprising that her kerchief became replaced with a pointy witches hat and her face grew more haggardly over time with a big pointy nose. It was born to happen, but I think this does her a great injustice. It may make sense for retailers to pawn off their Halloween witches as La Befana, but this cheapens her legend and legacy.

I still need to do more research on this topic but you must admit that La Befana is an intriguing woman whose legend is surround by magic and mystery. I don’t think she would have it any other way!

Copyright ©2020 by David Taliesin, http://www.sabbatsandsabbaths.com

About David Taliesin

My name is David Taliesin. I'm an writer, teacher and retreat leader who explores the connections between Christian and Pagan Spirituality. E-mail me with any personal comments you'd like to share and I will do my best to answer them. You can also contact me through my Facebook page www.facebook.com/davidtaliesinauthor
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