Long before the American Santa Claus became the dominant force in the Italian Christmas tradition, Italian children did not anxiously await gifts on December 25. It was the morning of January 6, on the day of the Epiphany, when the goodies came. And it wasn’t Babbo Natale who brought the gifts, but an old peasant woman affectionately called La Befana.
The legend goes something like this. An old white-haired woman was busy sweeping her house when the Magi – better known as the Three Wise Men – came to her door. They said they were seeking the new King who was born in Bethlehem. They needed directions, and asked if she wanted to join them on their journey. Impossible, she replied, as she had way too many chores to do. And so the Magi went on their way without the old woman.
But not long after they had left, la Befana began to regret her decision. Were the strangers really going to see the newborn Christ? She ran out of her home with her broom still in tow to look for them, but they were nowhere in sight. And so she set off, searching for them all night, without any luck.
And so the story goes, that every year, on the eve of the feast of the Wise Men – the Epiphany – the old woman once again sets off, going from home to home, in search of the newborn Christ. And while she is there, she fills the stockings of the good children with gifts, and leaves a lump of coal for the bad children. All this in hopes that one day she will indeed see the newborn Christ.
There are a few variations on the story. Some, for example, called la Befana a witch, rather than an old peasant woman. But the main points remain the same.
To this day, the Befana legend continues to be a part of Italian culture, both in Italy and abroad. The Feast of the Epiphany – January 6 – is a national holiday in Italy. It is also considered the last day of the Christmas holiday season.
In 1980, popular children’s author and illustrator, Tomie dePaola, penned a children’s book entitled The Legend of Old Befana, which offers a charming take on the legend. The Italian-American author continues to be a pinnacle in the children’s book genre, and the book, now in its 36th year of publication, continues to be a popular read.
You can purchase a copy of Tomie dePaola’s book, The Legend of Old Befana, from the Italocanadese online shop at redheadproductions.com/ItalocanadeseShop.