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La Befana

The legend: “In Italy theres this old woman called La Befana who has magical powers and she gives children gifts on January 5th. If you’re nice you get gifts but if you’re mean you get coal. January 5th is the Epiphany Day, I don’t know what it is but it’s some type of like God revelation or something.”

The informant is half-Italian (mom) and half-German (dad) and grew up in Belgium. She moved to the United States at 11 years old, and now resides in Canada where she attends a university. She heard this legend growing up from her mom and Nonna (her grandmother). I asked her if she ever believed in La Befana’s existence, and she said that she “did at one point because once Nonna brought it up and I was scared of her because she’s a scary old woman witch.” La Befana sounds like other gift-giving figures around the Winter Solstice, such as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, etc. January 5th is just around Christmas, so it matches with other Winter Solstice celebrations. People already celebrated the Winter Solstice, before Christianity made it a Christian holiday, so it makes sense for Italy to have its own version of the celebration. It’s also just after New Year’s Day, which means that Epiphany Day also represents a celebration of new beginnings; good children can celebrate the past year by receiving gifts and going forward into the next year being good again. Bad children can reflect on their bad decisions in the past year in order to strive for better in the coming year. Although La Befana can be a benevolent figure, she is presented as an old witch, which scares children into being “good,” reflected by the informant’s fear of the witch.

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