La Bafana

The Witch of Christmas

la Bafana hearth

The legend of Befana began thousands of years ago and remains to this day a tradition practiced by Waldorf children and their families.

The Legend:  This story takes place at the time of the birth of the Luke Jesus. La Befana is an old woman who lives in a house in the hills of Italy. Befana spends her days sweeping and baking. One night, Befana notices a bright light in the sky, she thinks nothing of it and goes back to her work of sweeping and baking. Later, a glorious caravan led by Three Wise Men stop and ask Befana for directions to Bethlehem and invite Befana to join them in their search for the Christ Child. But Befana is too busy and knows nothing of this far-away place nor the birth of a special baby. After the caravan disappeared over the hills, Befana thought of how much she missed her child who sadly died at a very young age. She changed her mind and wanted to visit this special child, because she loves children very much. So she placed some baked goods and gifts for the child in a sack, took her broom to help the new mother clean and raced out after the caravan in search of the Baby Jesus. Befana soon was lost. And just as she tired, angels appeared from the bright light, the magic star, in the sky to give flight to Befana on her broom – after all this was a night of miracles. She searched and searched for the Baby Jesus. Befana still searches, even today, even after all these centuries. And so, every year on the eve of the Epiphany, whenever Befana comes to a house where there is a child, she drops in to see if it might be the child she seeks. It never is, but Befana leaves a gift anyway. For Befana has come to realize, over the years, that her searching is not vain, that in a way the Christ Child can be found in all children.

Ever since then the old woman has been known as “La Befana” or simply “Befana.” On the eve of January 6th, Befana flies from house to house on her old broomstick and delivers all the gifts she didn’t give to the Holy Child to good girls and boys.

In fact, Befana’s name is the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphany,” and is significant because the religious feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th. This Christian celebration, in remembrance of the Magi’s visit to Jesus, can include purifying rites and benedictions with water. Water prepared on the eve of the Epiphany (the night that Befana flies the skies) is said to have sacred properties that can ward off evil spirits and is used in critical moments of a family’s life. Celebration of the Epiphany can be traced as far back as the 13th century and is one of the most popular Italian feasts.

In the time when our grandparents were children, Befana was tremendously popular and was awaited with a mixture of joy and anxiety. Children hung hand-knitted stockings on the fireplace and wrote long letters to her expressing their wishes. Often they were disappointed as their families had little money to spend on gifts; however, sometimes they found little hand-sewn dolls and puppets in their stocking. If they had been bad, their stockings were filled with onions, garlic and coal. Although there were no traditional dishes to celebrate this day, people would gather together and eat chestnuts, nuts and fruit pancakes.

Children of today know Befana as an old woman who flies a broom and wears a black shawl over a dress dirty with soot from the chimneys she climbs down to deliver her gifts. For the good children she brings sweets, toys and books. And, as in the past, she brings onions, garlic and coal for the bad children. In modern-day Italy some shops sell carbone or black rock candy that actually looks like pieces of coal.

Many people believe in La Befana’s existence, while others believe it is a fanciful story created for children. But Befana’s question of existence is irrelevant. Either way she still fulfils her function, which is to reaffirm the bond between family and ancestors through an exchange of gifts.

La-Befana 3 kings

my Waldorf girl learned this song at school:

Babuska, Babuska, she sweep & sweep all day
Babuska, Babushka, would not take time away.
Kings came ariding 1, 2, 3
Over the land & over sea
Following following yonder star
Calling out to them from afar
But Babuska, Babuska, she sweep & sweep all day
Babuska, Babushka, would not take time away.

For more info. contact ~Hazel Archer Ginsberg at