"Viene, viene la Befana" - On Befana, Italy's Christmas Witch

5 January – on the eve of Epiphany, La Befana the Christmas Witch flies through the night and brings gifts to children in Italy.

"Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana"

Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes La Befana! 
(Giovanni Pascoli)

Rembrandt van Rijn (attr.) "Girl with a Broom" (around 1650)

Once upon a time there lived an old woman east of Suez who was known as the best housekeeper near and far. Her reputation preceded here and thus it was no wonder that three wise men stopped by at her house on a cold January evening and asked her for accommodation. They came from the East they said and were led by a star towards Bethlehem to praise the infant. The crone did not complain about tales from oriental fortune tellers at all, did not even accuse them of being led by a bottle rather than a star and even considered to join them to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews and do a lot of praising and all that. Alas, top notch maintaining of a household famously is not work done by itself and the lady told the three Magi to go on ahead, she would just tidy up, arrange a few things and join them later on the road. And finally, when everything was shipshape and Bristol-fashion, she packed her things, heaved a sigh and set out on the road to Bethlehem. Alas, a sense of direction apparently was not her strong side and soon she was lost and wandered the roads and asked every girl and boy she met on her way if he or she was the infant and gave them sweetmeats when they shook their heads and on she marched to this very day. On every night before Three King’s Day, Epiphany, she appears to ask her way and give sweets to children in return and became known as Befana after La Festa dell'Epifania. And since old habits tend to stick, she sometimes even cleans the house and is glad to find a glass of wine and something to eat left for her. 

James Tissot (1836 - 1902) "Journey of the Magi" ( 1894)

Poor Befana, condemned to walk the night for all eternity like Ahasverus or Melmoth the Wanderer, has acquired a few more sombre aspects. Sometimes, it is not the infant saviour she asks for but her child who had died in a plague. In other variants of the legend her son was slain by order of Herod the Great during the Massacre of the Innocents and a doll that once had belonged to him or a robe sewn from her wedding dress given as gifts certainly carry a somewhat melancholy tune. But she remains a friendly sort and whatever made her appear as a witch, the worst she does is leaving garlic, onion or the ubiquitous lump of coal for naughty children in Italy and in Italian communities across the world while the rest receives gifts. La Befana appeared in Italy for the first time in her current guise during the late Middle Ages and she rode either a donkey or even a broom, the one she uses to sweep the house, and became known as the Christmas Witch. However, it’s safe to assume that some older customs and aspects of the Crone and ancient deities shine through La Befana’s appearance. The story of the Triple Goddess, the Maiden, Mother and the Crone, is ages old, naturally, and often told to reflect the seasonal cycle. La Befana, the old witch, walking the night and giving gifts towards the end of the year or just around the beginning of the new might very well echo ancient customs of the Italian peninsula. Once, before the Christians and even before Rome was built on her seven hills, there was a cult among the Sabines, the ones whose women were famously abducted by Romulus, revering a goddess known as Strenua. To honour her, they gave gifts at the beginning of the New Year known as strenae and in Roman times, Strenua had her shrine and a sacred grove on the Via Sacra on Capitoline Hill and a procession on 1 January when twigs from the grove were carried up to the old citadel, somewhere near the place where the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli al Campidoglio stands since the last 1,500 years. 

A Perchten mask from Austria

And who knows, maybe the witchy part of La Befana was blown across the Alps from the snowy north with the Tramontane and the Goths, Lombards and the rallying cry “Wibbelingen!”, Waiblingen in Swabia, of the Ghibellines. And up there, in the cradle of the Tramonate in the mountains and on the upper reaches of the River Rhine, where once the Alemanni and Suebi gathered, the goddess Bertha or Perchta roamed through the nights during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany and found out whether children were naughty or nice. Sweets or coal, however, were not to be found in the arsenal of a walker of the Rauhnächte, the rough nights, rooting back to the Dark Ages. Perchta would leave hard cash, a silver coin, in the shoes of well-behaved little ones, whatever that meant in the 8th century. Those who weren’t got their bellies slit, their guts eaten and their abdominal cavity stuffed with straw. By the end of the Middle Ages, the custom to leave food and drink during the Rauhnächte for Frau Perchta was condemned in Austria and Southern Germany and the Perchtenläufe, display processions with people wearing masks and costumes not unlike that of Krampus, were banned well until the folklore revivals of the 19th century. Italy, though, maintained the more gentle customs of La Befana and in one version of the story, she even finds the Christ child, gives him her gifts and he blessed her with a smile.

And more about La Befana on: