The Legend of La Befana:
In Italy, the legend of La Befana is one that is popularly told around the time of the Epiphany. What does a Catholic holiday have to do with modern Paganism? Well, La Befana happens to be a witch.
According to folklore, on the night before the feast of the Epiphany in early January, Befana flies around on her broom, delivering gifts. Much like Santa Claus, she leaves candy, fruit, or small gifts in the stockings of children who are well-behaved throughout the year. On the other hand, if a child is naughty, he or she can expect to find a lump of coal left behind by La Befana.
La Befana’s broom is for more than just practical transportation - she also will tidy up a messy house, and sweep the floors before she departs for her next stop. This is probably a good thing, since Befana gets a bit sooty from coming down chimneys, and it’s only polite to clean up after oneself. She may wrap up her visit by indulging in the glass of wine or plate of food left by parents as thanks.
So, where did La Befana come from? How did a kindly old witch become associated with the celebration of the Epiphany? Many of the stories behind La Befana involve a woman who is searching but unable to find the newborn infant Jesus.
In some Christian legends, it is said that Befana had been visited by the three Magi, or wise men, on their way to visit the baby Jesus. It’s said that they asked her for directions, but Befana wasn’t sure how to find the newborn infant. However, being a good housekeeper, she invited them to spend the night in her tidy little home. When the Magi left the next morning, they invited Befana to join them in their quest. Befana declined, saying she had too much housework to do, but later she changed her mind. She tried to find the wise men and the new baby, but was unable to, so she now flies around on her broom delivering gifts to children. Perhaps she is still searching for the infant Jesus.
In other tales, La Befana is a woman whose children have died in a great plague, and she follows the wise men to Bethlehem. Before leaving her house, she packs up some simple gifts - a doll that belonged to one of her children, and a robe sewn from her own wedding dress. These plain gifts are all she has to give to the infant Jesus, but she is unable to locate him. Today, she flies around delivering gifts to other children in hopes of finding him.
Some scholars believe that the story of La Befana actually has pre-Christian origins. The tradition of leaving or exchanging gifts may relate to an early Roman custom that takes place in midwinter, around the time of Saturnalia. Befana may also represent the passing of the old year, with the image of an old woman, to be replaced by a new year.
Today many Italians, including those who follow the practice of Stregheria, celebrate a festival in La Befana’s honor.