The Pagan Origins of Befana Day


“Ninnaò, ninnaò,
questo bimbo a chi lo do
se lo do alla Befana
se lo tiene una settimana
se lo do all’Uomo Nero
se lo tiene un anno intero
ma se il bimbo fa la nanna
se lo tiene la sua mamma”

Old Italian lullaby celebrating the the witch of the Christmas season.

I write about this mythological witch of the winter in my book Cosmic Witch, also available in Italian under the title The Witch – La Strega.

Not only do children in Italy get to celebrate with Santa Claus, they have Befana who is a similar character riding out at night delivering gifts to good children, and leaving lumps of coal for the little troublemakers.  I have it on good authority that since her appearance brings the end of the holiday season, and therefore a return to school the next day, it is a little bittersweet.

Befana is associated with the Christian holidays, but during my research I learned that she may  be quite older than Christmas itself.

Pagan origins of Befana

“The feast of this fairy-tale old lady, so much beloved and feared by Italian children, takes origin from the “old lady” which was burned in the squares to celebrate the end of the year, a symbol of time cycles always ending and beginning again.

The Befana is also related to the mysterious rites of the Celtic peoples once inhabiting the whole Pianura Padana and part of the Alps, when wicker puppets were set on fire in honor of ancient gods. The witch, the woman magician (the priestess of the ancient Celtic culture that knew the secrets of nature) took the form of the Befana.

The “coal” that she would leave to the nasty children was actually also a symbol of fertility connected to the sacred bonfires and the “ceppo”. The other almost universal symbol accompanying the old lady, the broom, that clearly resembles a magic wand, is also connected to the tree and the nature rituals of the Celts in their forests.”

Excerpt from Italy Heritage: La Befana

No matter what her actual origin I love that her tradition is enduring and celebrated.

Happy Befana Day!

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