The Night of La Befana was recorded as early as 1549, when Agnolo Firenzuola has Golpe (one of the characters that appears in his poem La Trinuzia) mention this widely celebrated tradition. 

Although the Roman artist, illustrator and engraver, Bartolomeo Pinelli represents the nineteenth century Befana as being relatively well-dressed, she is generally described as an ugly crone, wearing ragged vestments. A Roman nursery rhyme describes her as follows:

“The Befana comes at night

In worn out shoes

Dressed like a Roman

Long live the Befana!”

Said to travel over the rooftops of Italy on her broom, leaving chocolates and candies for the good children and coal for those who have misbehaved, she enters their houses via the chimney and exchanges her gifts for offerings of cake and wine. Accordingly, a nursery rhyme from the Puglia region relates to this part of the legend.

“The Befana comes at night

In worn-out shoes.

For the small, little children she leaves a lot of little chocolates,

For the bad little children, she leaves ashes and coal.”

As far as Christian traditions are concerned, there are two stories that relate to the Befana. In the first, the The Wise Men (or Magi) stop at her house to ask directions to Bethlehem, as they are following a star, which will lead them to the newborn Son of God. They invite her to come along with them, but she refuses. She is after all, busy sweeping her house. Later she realises the magnitude of her decision and decides to follow after them. Her broom magically allows her to mount it and she flies away. Unfortunately she cannot find the Magi nor the baby Jesus and instead, continues to fly over Italy, providing gifts to little children at Epiphany. 

The second Christian myth that attempts to explain the origins of the Befana begins with King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Herod, in his haste to rid the world of the Lord Jesus, decreed that all male children of a certain age would be killed. One of the mothers whose son is murdered is so desolate and aged with grief that she refuses to believe that her child is dead. Instead she bundles up the boy’s belongings and set out to find him. Of course she does not succeed, although she inadvertently happens upon the Christ-child and the Holy Family. Accordingly, she offers her son’s belongings to the baby Jesus and for this selfless act, is rewarded by Saint Joseph. For one night, every year, until the end of time, the Befana is permitted to treat all of the children of Chrisendom’s as her own and bestow gifts on them as she pleases. 

References: Agnolo Firenzuola, Opere di Messer Agnolo Firenzuola Fiorentino, Volume Quinto, Milano, 1802, p. 41.

Jo Linsdell, “The Legend of La Befana.” In The Florentine, 14 December, 2006.

Lisa Yannucci, “La Befana vien di notte.” Available at Mama Lisa’s World: International Music and Culture.

“The Befana.”

Images: Bartolomeo Pinelli, La Befana, the Old Woman who Comes down the Chimney at the Feast of the Epiphany to bring Gifts for Young Children, 1820, print, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Professor C. E. Norton. © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

La Befana Selling Sweets and Nougart in Piazza Navona During Epiphany, 1836. De Agostini Picture Library. Editorial Use Permitted.

La Befana, 1821, etching on laid paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.  Gift of Ruth Cole Kainen. © 2018 National Gallery of Art.

Posted by Samantha Hughes-Johnson.

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