Forget Father Christmas and Santa Claus. In Rome, the Christmas witch rules.

La Befana, the Christmas witch

Christmas market at Piazza Navona

A few years ago, on an impulse, I took my then 5-year-old to Rome a few days before Christmas. The main attraction at the Piazza Navona Christmas market seemed to be witches. They were everywhere, laughing wickedly, madly – while sitting on brooms or falling off their rocking chairs. Unprepared for this witch fest, my little one was a bit frightened. Whenever someone clapped their hands – and witch sellers did ceaselessly – that shrill lunatic laugh pierced the bone marrow.

The befana legend is nice, though: On their way to Bethlehem, the magi stop by her house, the cleanest in the village, and ask for shelter for the night. When leaving the next morning, they invite her to join their search for a special baby. Befana declines, she’s too busy cleaning. After they leave, she thinks for a bit – and decides to go along after all. She finishes her work and follows the men. But she’s too late. She never finds the baby.

Come 6 January, Epiphany, la befana is still flying about on her broom, searching. On that day, Italian children leave a glass of wine and some nibbles for the Christmas witch. And she, in turn, leaves a present for the children in every house she looks. After all, anyone of them might be baby Jesus.

After hearing the legend, my daughter decides she’s not scary after all. In fact, might the Christmas witch perhaps come to our house this year? Well, we don’t live in Italy, but one can always hope, I reply vaguely. With St. Nicholas’ evening in the Netherlands (5 December), Christmas Eve in Norway, Christmas Day in the UK and Epiphany in Italy, the enterprising, global child could make every day a gift day.

La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!

For more on Christmas traditions around the world, visit the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival on Inside the Travel Lab.