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La Strega, La Vecchia

On Epiphany Eve children in Italy go to bed expecting La Befana to visit the house during the night. She leaves gifts for children who have been good during the past year and warns those who have misbehaved. The name "Befana" comes from the Italian word for Epiphany, Epiphania. La Befana may also be referred to as La Strega, meaning "the witch," or La Vecchia, meaning "the old woman." Although not much is known about the history of this figure from Italian legend, some authorities believe that La Befana may be related to Berchta, another witch-like figure who visits homes in central and northern Europe during the Twelve Days of Christmas and, especially, on Twelfth Night. La Befana also appears to be related to Baboushka, a Russian folk figure about whom a nearly identical tale is told.

The Legend of La Befana

There once was an old woman who lived alone by the side of the road. Her husband and child had died years ago. To forget her loneliness, she busied herself with many household tasks. One day three richly dressed men stopped at her house and asked her the way to Bethlehem. They invited the old woman to accompany them on their journey to worship the Christ child who had just been born there. The old woman grumbled, "I'm much too busy with my daily chores to go with you, and besides I've never even heard of Bethlehem." After the Three Kings, or Magi, had left, the old woman began to regret her decision. She gathered a few trinkets from among her simple belongings to present to the child as gifts. The she grabbed her broom and hurried after her visitors. The old woman walked and walked, but never caught up with the Three Kings and never found the Christ child. She didn't give up, however. Each year on Epiphany Eve she flies over the world on her broom searching for the Christ child. She checks each house where children live, diving down the chimney. Even when she doesn't find Him she bestows sweets and gifts on well-behaved children. Naughty children may receive ashes, coal, or a birch rod.


Prior to Epiphany, children write letters to La Befana asking her for the gifts they would like to receive (see also Children's Letters). In some places, rag dolls representing La Befana are hung in windows as seasonal decorations. On Epiphany Eve children hang a stocking or a suit of clothes near the fireplace. During the night La Befana fills the stockings or the pockets of their clothes with sweets and gifts. In some cities it was customary for groups of young people to gather on Epiphany Eve and make a great deal of noise with drums and musical instruments to welcome La Befana. In many parts of Italy today, Santa Claus, or Babbo Natale, has displaced La Befana as the Christmas season gift bringer (see also Italy, Christmas in).

Further Reading

Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. 1946. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Italy. Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1979.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003


fairy fills stockings with toys on Twelfth Night. [Ital. Legend: LLEI, I: 323]


female Santa Claus who comes at Epiphany. [Ital. Legend: Walsh Classical, 50]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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