Culture Shock: Italy’s Christmas Witch – La Befana

La Befana

The first time I heard about ‘La Befana’ was almost at my two-year mark of living in Italy. It took me many years to get myself integrated into the Italian culture and way of life.

As a student, I had mostly international friends and the closest I ever came to living like a Milanese or Italian was engaging in a ritual of Friday aperitifs with classmates.

When I saw her – ‘La Befana’, I stared in bewilderment at the image of a witch flying on a broomstick. You mean Italians celebrate her on January 6th, and her job is to deliver gifts to children?

If you do not know, rooted in folklore and rich with cultural significance, La Befana is a time-honored Italian tradition that pays homage to the legend of an old woman who delivers gifts to children across Italy on the night of January 5th.

La Befana also known as the religious feast of the Epiphany is celebrated as a public holiday on the 6th of January each year in Italy.

The history of the befana descends from pre-Christian magical traditions. The term “Befana” derives from the Greek “Epiphany”, or “apparition”. The Befana is therefore celebrated on the day of the Epiphany, which usually closes the Christmas holiday period.

This enigmatic figure, often depicted as a kind-hearted witch, travels on a broomstick, leaving small presents and sweets in the stockings of well-behaved children while lumps of coal for the naughty ones.

Culture Shock: Italy's Christmas Witch - La Befana - Befana 2 scaled

On the night between the 5th and 6th of January, under the weight of a bag full of toys, chocolates, and sweets; and at the bottom a good dose of ash and coal, the Befana flies over the roofs and, climbing down the chimneys, she fills the stockings left hanging by the children.

Children prepare for the good old lady a plate of mandarin or an orange and a glass of wine. The next morning, in addition to the gifts or lumps of coal, the children will find the meal consumed and the imprint of the Befana’s hand on the ash scattered on the plate.

Well in African culture, there is no such thing as a good witch. Witches are prayed against. Some people believe in their existence, and their role is known to majorly wreak havoc. So you can imagine my shock when I learned there’s a day dedicated to La Befana and little children are associated with her.

If you are looking for a local event to partake in on January 6th, The Procession of the Three Kings in Piazza Duomo, with musical performances is a good idea, I mentioned it as one of the Top 10 Unmissable events in January. It is a grand-style parade that promises to be truly outstanding! 

What culture shocks have you experienced?

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