The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live the Befana!
— Italian Poem about Befana
Image from the Italian Cultural Society
In Italian folklore, Befana is a witch who delivers presents to children throughout Italy on the eve of the Epiphany of the Lord (usually around January 5).
She would fill the socks of nice children with toys and candy, while the naughty children can expect coal and dark colored candy. But all children in Italy will get some dark colored candy since they’ve been bad at least once throughout the year. In Sicily, she will leave some sticks, instead. Families will put out wine and some morsels of food for her. And before she leaves, she will clean your house for you!
Her name is said to have derived from the mispronunciation of the Greek word epifania or ephiphaneia, which means appearance or surface).
She is portrayed as an old woman wearing a black shawl, covered from head to toe in soot from coming down chimneys, and riding a broomstick. It is said that you try to catch a glimpse of her, she will smack you with her broomstick… a tale likely told by parents to keep their children from getting out of bed.
She has a few origin stories. One legend states that she lost her child and upon hearing the news of Jesus’ birth, she set out to find him, believing that he was her son, in her grief. Delighted by Befana’s gifts, Jesus declared her the mother of all children in Italy.
A less tragic origin story says that Befana ran the best inn in Bethlehem and housed the Three Magi. Grateful for her wonderful hospitality, they invited her on their journey to find the Messiah, but she declined because she was too busy with housework. Feeling guilty, she set out to look for Jesus herself, but never found him. To this day, she is still looking for him (by delivering presents to the children’s homes because baby Jesus is present in all children).