Saint Befana’s Day: Gifts From the Witch

In Italy and Southern Switzerland, January 5th is Befana’s Day. In the night before Epiphany, the witch Befana brings presents and sweets to children. If this reminds you of Saint Nicolas, Santa Claus, and Old Man Frost, then that’s no coincidence.

According to the legend, Befana got embroiled in all that Christian hullaballoo by mere chance;she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the three magi lost their way on a cloudy day, they asked an old woman they met on the road for directions: Which road should they follow to find the child of God? The old woman was the witch Befana. Getting the full inside story, she speedily went home and collected gifts for the wondrous child she had been told about. But being a good housekeeper, she wouldn't leave the house all dirty. She cleaned the rooms and the kitchen, dried the dishes, and put them into the cupboard before locking up.

By the time she made it back to the road, the magi had vanished from sight. She followed them but never managed to catch up. When she finally came to Bethlehem, she didn't see the star and couldn't find the child. Since then, she visits children all over the world on her special day, entering the houses by way of the chimneys. She puts gifts into the stockings of good children, but into those of bad children she puts nothing but coal. The coal she leaves in the stockings of bad children is not real coal, though, but a black candy.

If the last part of the story reminds you of St. Nicolas, then that is intentional. Until quite recently, the South of Switzerland and Italy had their gifts orgies on the eve of January 6th, and not on Christmas Eve. But Befana is much older than Christianity, even though she is referred to as Saint Befana. In all probability, she took her name from the word Epiphany. In reality, she is the Sabine Goddess Strenia. Strenia and the God Janus were the ones responsible for the exchanging of gifts in pre-Christian Rome on New Year.

As Saint Befana wandered north over the centuries, she took on some Celtic characteristics. They account for her being represented as a witch or old woman. The Celtic old year was represented as an old woman (appearing on New Year's Eve), whereas the New Year was a young girl. As a witch, she rides a broom, with which she cleans up in the house after descending through the chimney. Arriving in the lands of the Langobards in Northern Italy and the South of Switzerland, she also took on some characteristics from Berchta, a Germanic nature goddess.

During the tenure of the Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini, Saint Befana was misappropriated by them as part of their humdrum ideology. She was intended to represent as a truly Roman tradition, but funnily enough kept her guise of Celtic old witch rather than young Roman goddess. The fascist ideologists even went to the trouble of tampering with the traditional Befana song which went: The Befana comes by night / in her rotten shoes / in her patched skirt / long live the Befana. The ideologists supplanted the third line with: in her Roman skirt. I don't know about you, but I find it troubling that this fascist propaganda piece is cited as the original in English Wikipedia. Wikipedia is always wrong, but it usually isn't fascist.

Traditionally, the Nodada della Befana (swimming in honor of Befana) is held on January 5th in the Lago Maggiore in Brissago, Switzerland. With the air temperature just over 0 Celsius and the water at a sizzling hot 6 Celsius, you need to be hardy to venture it. The organizers, by the way, have a team of medics on site that check your health status before you are allowed to attempt the plunge.