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(In our house better known as the
Feast Day of the Three Kings or Little Christmas)

The 6th of January is known as the Epiphany across the world, but for Italian children its main significance is the celebration known as “La Befana”. Traditionally, this is the day that an elderly, witchlike woman visits houses, leaving presents for well-behaved children – a second Christmas of sorts. It’s one of the most beloved Italian traditions, but who exactly is La Befana!

La Befana is commonly represented as a very old woman – appropriate, considering that she’s even older than Babbo Natale (Santa Claus). La Befana has been flying around on her broomstick since at least the 13th century,.

The name “befana” comes from “epifania” (epiphany). The character’s pagan origins were originally problematic for the Catholic Church, but over the years La Befana was gradually accepted. One version of the legend even makes her part of the story of Christ’s birth. The three wise men knocked on the door of an old woman and asked her if she’d like to accompany them on the journey to visit the new-born Christ. The woman refused, saying she had too much work to do, but later regretted her choice. Ever since, she has been visiting children, filling their socks with gifts and treats, as she continues her search for Christ.

The socks that the Befana fills up are with treats for good children or, for “bad kids”, with coal.

In the past, for adults, La Befana was a chance to enjoy a day off work, usually at home with the family. It marked the end of an extended holiday season – one last moment of rest and relaxation before the year begins. For children, it’s a mini-Christmas. They leave their stockings out on the evening of 5 January, hoping to receive some small presents and sweets. In theory, badly-behaved children should get coal in their stockings, but they’re more likely to get “carbone dolce” (sweet coal), a dessert made with sugar, egg yolk and black food coloring. 

La Befana has also been celebrated across Italy with street markets, parties and games for children. The best-known example is the festival in Piazza Navona in Rome, which typically features a merry-go-round, puppet shows and food stalls. However, just as traditional food varies from region to region, so does La Befana.

Hopefully just as Santa Clause found a way to travel around the world, La Befana has found a way to fly around on her broomstick and fill those Italian stockings for the children.  Sadly many of the other traditions are not observed and most especially this year. 

Growing up my “Little Nonna” would put an orange and some pieces of hard candy in our stockings. We celebrated the visit of the 3 Kings rather than LaBefana and left our decorations up until the 6th.  In our house, now that all the children are grown, we really don’t have a traditional celebration but we do leave our Nativity up until the 6th and we still call it “Little Christmas”.

Buon Natale, Ancora!








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