In Catholicism, January 6 is the feast of the Epiphany. The last of the twelve days of Christmas, Epiphany is the day on which three foreign kings, the Biblical Magi, are said to arrive to meet the infant Jesus. In Italian folk legend, the Epiphany has a further significance as the day on which La Befana comes to visit households near and far.
Her tale is told in many forms and flavors, and La Befana emerges in Italian folklore alternately as a spirit, a witch, a Biblical figure, or a kind—if occasionally grumpy—grandmother. In the most common version, as the three magi follow their star to the site of Jesus’s birth, they stop at the home of an old woman (la befana, “the hag”). She waves them on; she’s too busy with chores to follow. Soon second thoughts creep in, and she packs her broom and a basket of baked goods for Mary, on the logic that some cleaning and something to eat might go over better than frankincense. She’s too late to catch the magi, but in her haste, she’s lifted into the sky to spend eternity soaring in search of the divine child (just in case, she leaves gifts and sweeps up wherever she might find a child asleep on the night of the Epiphany). In an especially poignant telling of the tale, La Befana loses a child to King Herod’s massacre of Bethlehem’s firstborn sons and, in her grief, is blessed as a wandering mother to all children.
At first blush, La Befana might seem to be interchangeable with any other regional saint or holiday sprite with a gift bag in tow. Folklorist John B. Smith notes that the mythic figures who mark the end of the calendar year tend to have a lot in common, each “a mysterious figure said to be at large at one time or another during the Twelve Days of Christmas, receiving offerings, rewarding those who conform to certain norms, and looking askance on those who do not.”
So close is the similarity to the celebrated Saint Nick that “the Italian Befana often comes down the chimney and deposits gifts in stockings or on the hearth,” as Leslie Johnson points out in a survey of folkloric “gift-bringers.” Children who send their written wishes to La Befana up the chimney on scraps of paper hope to receive fruit, nuts, candy, or gifts in return (as Stanley Gee reports, one hopeful folk song rhapsodizes in support of a cheese-themed holiday, begging the listener to “Throw something down to me / A little orange or a pefanino / or a small piece of pecorino”).
La Befana also taps into a long tradition of folklore as something that is both enacted and experienced on a community level. Her traditions in Italy have long been observed by and with groups of merry-making musicians and costumed La Befana and Il Befano characters (La Befana’s male partner is largely incidental). Going around town, the group will entertain, “receive a glass of wine or a bite to eat or a little money from the householder, and then continue to the next house.” (Gee compares this practice to English wassailing or the Mari Llwyd tradition in Wales.)
The children’s author Tomie de Paola made this folk story the subject of The Legend of Old Befana, one of his many holiday books. The book opens with an illustration of La Befana, stout and firm in her long skirts and sensible shoes, and the warning, “She lived all alone, and she wasn’t very friendly.” No one knows much about her—the children in town say she’s cranky, she spends most of her time obsessively sweeping, and she certainly doesn’t entertain visitors. Sometimes villagers catch the aromas of baking coming from the house or hear a faint lullaby. They think she’s nuts. Like de Paola’s most famous creation, the “grandmother witch” Strega Nona, La Befana is a woman who can be easily misunderstood or dismissed. With the invisibility of old age, the lesser status of spinsterhood, and the unspoken whiff of witchcraft, these women are clear outsiders.
But as he did with Strega Nona, de Paola imbues La Befana with warmth. De Paola and other authors of his generation would have understood feeling like an outsider, with family members who had navigated the balance between immigrant status, assimilatory impulses, and a root cultural character that Lina Insana describes as italianitá. In preserving folk traditions and restyling them for a new childhood audience, de Paola and other Italian American creators acknowledged their history while creating a new, distinctly Italian American identity.
Folklorist and historian Luisa Del Giudice, writing about de Paola’s embrace of Italian storytelling, explains that in this act of creation, the author returned again and again to strong women and, with them, “the best in Italian grandmotherhood—the household arts, the magical, medicinal arts, as well as much love and wisdom.” Where older folk traditions often emphasized La Befana’s harsher aspect—Del Giudice mentions that in the Veneto region, folks believe La Befana is toothless, illiterate, and prone to greeting ill-behaved children with a “shoeful of ashes”—de Paola doesn’t treat her coarseness as an obstacle to generosity. And yes, she expressed that generosity through food: just as Strega Nona had an infinite pasta pot from which to dispense goodness, La Befana is said to bake for an entire day to fill her basket of gifts.
So when Epiphany rolls around, spare a thought for La Befana and leave her a little something. She likes sausage or a nice lentil dish better than milk and cookies. Don’t forget the wine.