First Night Binghamton 2007

Around the World and Home Again

ITALY: La Befana, the original Good Witch



Sophia's sketch for La Befana puppet

In Italy, the feast of Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the Three Magi in Bethlehem, eclipses the secular New Year as the important marker for the new year.

La Befana, whose name comes from the Roman dialect's pronunciation of the Italian "epifania", is a friendly witch who comes delivering gifts for the good children, and lumps of coal to the bad ones. Popular mythology has it that the three wise men stopped into la Befana's house on their way to Bethlehem, seeking shelter and a meal for the night. The widow was sush a nice hostess that they invited her to come with them to find the new born Jesus. The Befana declined their offer, but, regretting her decision after they left, she packed up some toys belonging to her own child who had previously died and set out after them. She never caught up with them, and to this year she deliveres her gifts to Italian children on the night before epiphany.

Until recently, Christmas was exclusively a family feast and children only received gifts on epiphany, which they found in the morning in the stockings in the stockings or shoes they had left out, alongside a bottle of wine, or a piece of salame for la Befana. The presents were traditionally a a piece of fruit or candy, and it was not unusual to also receive a piece of coal, with the assumption that the child had been bad at some point in the previous year. As with all other Italian fesivities, the rest of the day was spent feasting with the family.

This year for First Night, we created a giant puppet of La Befana. This illuminated witch figure carried small gifts, and possibly some lumps of coal, in recognition of childrens' behaviour over the past year.

(to learn more about La Befana and how she is celebrated today, you can visit the La Befana Festival in Sant’Andrea in Villis @


La Befana in a 19th Century engraving

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