La Befana – Italian Christmas Witch

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian-American
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: Berkeley, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 14, 2021
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Italian

Description of Informant

AG (18) is an Italian-American dual citizen and high school student from Berkeley, CA. At home, she speaks primarily Italian, and spends her summers in Italy.

Context of Interview

The informant, AG, sits in the kitchen with her father and the collector, BK, her step-brother. Text spoken in Italian is italicized, but not translated.

Interview

AG: So, in Italy, obviously, they have Christmas. But here in America people usually hang their stockings over the fireplace during Christmastime, right? Santa Clause comes and brings them a few extra goodies in their stockings. But in Italy, what you do, is basically you get your gifts on Christmas. And the next month, in January, La Befana comes— I don’t remember if it’s before or after Christmas, but you know— umm, she comes. And she brings you, if you’re a bad child, no if you’re a good child she brings you candies and toys and a bit of money or spare change or whatever. And then, if you’re a bad child, she brings you coal! And our mom, all the time, there’s these candies in Italy that they sell a lot during this time period. They’re wrapped in black and it’s like hard chocolate, like chunky chocolate that looks like coal. So basically you would just put this candy in the stocking, and it looks like coal, so the child is like “oh no! I’ve been a bad child!” But then actually it’s just chocolate. You know?

BK: What is La Befana? Is it a human? Creature?

AG: Oh! Sorry, yeah La Befana means “The Witch.” But she’s a good witch.

BK: How is she depicted? What does she look like?

AG: Umm I don’t think it really goes into as much depth as Santa Clause. Kind of like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. Yeah like flying on the broom with the hat.

BK: Does she come on a specific day or is it always a surprise?

AG: No it is a specific day I’m just forgetting the date. I think it’s in January or February but I’m not sure. And then also, something I just remembered, here we have the Tooth Fairy. There you have Il… uhh… hmm I’m forgetting. But like, same thing with the Tooth Fairy like maybe everyone has a different version of the Tooth Fairy in their minds. Right? Like is she a pocket-sized fairy or is she a larger fairy?

BK: Or is she Dwayne Johnson. Have you seen that movie? Where he plays the Tooth Fairy.

AG: Oh that’s funny. Or is it Dwayne Johnson? Same thing with the witch, like who knows what she looks like?

BK: You mentioned coal-shaped chocolate. Is it a substitute for coal as-in you’d receive it if you were naughty? Or is it a trick to make good children think they got a punishment, when in reality they got a treat?

AG: I think it’s just a trick, yeah. We usually would get toys every year and then one year our mom did this to us and we were like “What!?” At first, we were really surprised and kinda hurt, but then it was just chocolate so we were fine. And it’s not like you get a big toy, it’s just a stocking stuffer, like a pen or a slinky.

*At this point, AG‘s father EG (52) interjects to correct the date*

EG: [La Befana comes] on “The Feast of the Epiphany,” which is January 6th. Or 5th?

Collector’s Reflection

EG is correct; La Befana comes on January 5th: “The Feast of Epiphany,” the celebration of the visit of the three kings to newborn Jesus Christ. She resembles a kindly old grandmother, and, in addition to depositing gifts for the children, is known for tidying up a bit.

La Befana‘s legend is tied to the religious origin of Christmas, which may reflect why she has not been widely adopted in the United States: a region where Christmas is a greater celebration of capitalism than religion. However, her role of stuffing stockings and leaving bad children coal has been co-opted by the American Santa Claus. In contemporary America, the practice of giving coal is kept alive in name only. Generally, all children who celebrate the holiday, good or bad, receive gifts. From the informant’s perspective, the same appears true in Italy. However, the introduction of the coal-shaped chocolate keeps the tradition alive, while not entirely punishing the recipient.

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For the legend of La Befana‘s origin, and a discussion of the treats she brings, please see:

Thimmesch, Debra. “The Legend of La Befana.” ItaliaRail, 20 Dec. 2019, www.italiarail.com/culture/legend-la-befana.