In Rome, the Holidays Get a Sour Face

Saint Nick plays second fiddle to La Befana in Italy. Just don't call her a witch.

By / December 2018

The sky had turned to iron. A cold, wet wind, fresh loose from the Alps, was terrorizing the Italian peninsula, stripping the orange trees naked, sending a shiver through the branches. We were approaching our first holiday season in Rome, and the world had become a most depressing place. But just when the short days and moribund weather had drained the picturesque city of its color, twinkling lights appeared above the roads, chestnut roasters set up camp on every corner, Christmas markets occupied several piazzas, and (the final touch) shop windows grew flush with pictures of witches.

Yes, you read that last bit correctly. All across the city, at Christmastime, not Halloween, I began to see pictures and paintings and woodcuts and figurines of witches. Witches grimacing. Witches grinning. Witches soaring through the air on broomsticks. People in witch masks waving in the streets. Rome, and indeed all of Italy, seemed to have gone witch crazy.

A couple of days later, I made the mistake of asking some friends about the witches. The response from my pals was immediate, harsh, and wounded, delivered in a symphony of passionate Italian, peppered with several local obscenities and deranged, full-bodied hand motions that poured down on me from all sides. I had no idea what I had said, but it was obviously offensive.

After three full minutes of this Fellini-esque mob scene, I managed to get them calmed down. I asked them to forgive my ignorance and help me understand. Evidently, the offense was in the moniker. It turned out that the terrifying creature plastered all over Rome was no witch at all but rather La Befana, the Christmas Hag. How could I have ever made such a mistake? What with her black cloak, wart-covered nose, and flying broom, it should have been obvious that she was in fact a hag. Silly foreigner.

My friends further explained that La Befana, she of vague and ancient central Italian origins, was the primary Christmas character in this region of the world. Santa Claus made his way down to the land of pizza and pasta, but he was a fairly recent arrival, and he played a squeaky second fiddle to La Befana, who invades homes every year on the Eve of the Epiphany, January 5th.

In preparation, Italian children set out a plate for Befana, replete with cheese and salami or some other local fare, and pour her a glass of wine. Then, after everyone is tucked safely in bed, she flies her broom down the chimney, dines casually on the provided meal, and fills everyone’s socks with candy and gifts. But it doesn’t stop there.

La Befana is a tidy and thoughtful hag. After she has finished dispensing goodies, she often cleans up after herself, washing the dishes and sweeping the floor. I found this detail especially impressive, as I was accustomed to waking up to a plate full of cookie crumbs on Christmas morning. Pretty lazy Santa, pret-ty lazy.

Apparently, for bad kids, it’s a different story. All the little Neros and Snookies out there wake up to a darker scene. For these indigents, Befana doles out sockfuls of coal or sticks or unattractive and foul-tasting candy meant only to tease and demoralize the recipient. I bet she even leaves them with sooty footprints and wine stains to deal with.

Sure enough, as Christmas crept closer and closer, talk of La Befana permeated children’s conversations around Rome. I personally spotted the old woman wandering through the massive Christmas market in Piazza Navona. She was swarmed by laughing youngsters with greedy sparkles in their eyes. She starred in several TV commercials and even popped up in a couple of holiday films, hunched over and leering with a raspy cackle, perfectly encapsulating the Christmas spirit.

Tragically, La Befana did not visit our apartment that year. Not even to chide me with coal and disgusting treats. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was because we did not have a chimney or perhaps it was because we had already swept that night, but really I was just kidding myself. In truth, it was fairly obvious why Befana had passed us by. I had called her a witch.


Chris Watts is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.