The holidays in Italy don’t end until La Befana visits on the Epiphany—January 6. A national holiday in the country, the Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season.
According to Christian tradition, the Three Wise Men, bearing gifts, visited the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem on that 12th day of Christmas. In Italian folklore, while on their journey, the three Magi encountered an old witch-like woman and asked for directions, food, and shelter. They invited La Befana to join them, but she refused saying she had chores to do.
During the night, a bright like awakened La Befana, who was frightened. Believing it was a sign that she should have gone with the three men, she took off in search of them and the Christ Child. She was unable to find him, so she handed out gifts to sleeping children along her way.
Since that time, La Befana travels through the night of January 5 on her broom, leaving treats for children to find when they awaken on the morning of the Epiphany. Legend also has it that La Befana sweeps up each house before she continues on her way.
The Tradition Continues
Italians have celebrated La Befana for centuries. While Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) has overshadowed her in many ways, Italian children still hang up stockings for La Befana’s visit. Instead of a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, children leave La Befana a glass of wine and pandoro or panettone. Good children awake to find toys, candy, and other sweets; naughty children receive coal, onions, or garlic in their stockings.
Many towns throughout the country celebrate La Befana with street festivals. In Urbania, the legendary home of La Befana, the people honor the grandmotherly witch with a three-day festival filled with food, singing and dancing, food and fun. Hundreds of Befane roam the streets bringing joy to the festivities with colorful costumes and fun antics.
Cookies and Cakes
Befanini cookies are the typical cookies of the Befana and Epiphany holidays. Because poor families could not afford to give their children toys and presents “from La Befana,” mothers would bake the cookies and place them in the children’s stockings with fruit and other delicacies.
There are many recipes for the cookies, but they are all a buttery sugar dough topped with colorful sprinkles. The colorful topping are a reminder of the joy and light of the holiday as the grey days of winter are ahead.
The Befana cakes also celebrate the old witch. Just as with the cookies, there are many recipes, but each yields a dense yellow fruit bread/cake something akin to panettone. Hidden inside each cake is a coin or bean. Whoever gets the slice with the hidden object will be lucky all year.
By the way, for those children whose behavior is maybe a little mischievous during the year, there are “sweet coals,” sweets that resemble the charcoal lumps. You can find a recipe here.
My Mom and La Befana
I remember my mom told me of La Befana when I was a child. She reminisced that she and her siblings put their shoes by the door on January 5 in anticipation of the witch’s visit. The next morning, they would find oranges, walnuts, cookies, and coins in their stockings.
One year, Mom let me put my shoes outside of our back door, and La Befana left oranges and Christmas candy for me to enjoy. Mom also annually made the yellow cake, although she called made it with only raisins.