Tag Archives: natale

Arriva la Befana | The Befana Is Coming

Around Italy, i ragazzi, the kids, are getting ready to hang their calze, stockings, by il camino, the chimney, with care, in hopes that la Befana soon will be there.

i bravi, the good ones, will get caramelle, candies, and little regali, presents, while i cattivi, the bad ones will get carbone, coal.

While Babbo Natale, Santa Claus, comes on Christmas Eve, la Befana arrives during the night between January 5/6, coinciding with l’Epifania, Epiphany.

There are other noteable similarities and differences between the main present-bringer, Santa, and la Befana.

Just like Babbo Natale, la Befana travels through the air. In place of a sleigh with flying reindeer, befana dollla Befana flies a broomstick from house to house where there are bambini, children, entering by way of il camino.

Where Babbo Natale is rotund, merry, white-bearded and dressed in red and white, la Befana is depicted as a smiling, grandmotherly-looking witch, wearing tattered clothing and covered in soot astride a broomstick.

Just like Santa Claus, la Befana’s origins are nebulous, mainly the stuff of folklore, with many variations.befana + re magi
The most common story I encounter is that la Befana lived along the route the Magi took to Bettlemme, Bethlehem. In this version, they stopped at her house seeking food and shelter, but she wasn’t feeling sociable and sent them away.

Later, la Befana had a change of heart and set out to find the Magi to accompany them to find the Christ Child. But by then, she was too late to catch up, and she never found the three kings or the baby Jesus.

So, as the story goes, to this day, at this time of year, she still travels the world, leaving gifts for every child, lest they be il Gesù Bambino, the Baby Jesus.

Poster for a Befana event

January 6, the Epiphany, marks the official end of the Italian Christmas holiday season. It is also said that la Befana takes away the old year, and i dolci, sweets, and regali she brings symbolize seeds to grow in the new year.

Many cities and towns hold special events and parties dedicated to celebrating la festa dell’Epifania/la Befana, Epiphany holiday. People play bingo and cards, and gather outdoors in the piazze, squares, for festivities, including music, processions, live presepi, nativity scenes, mercatini, open-air markets, and live appearances by la Befana.

And while it’s mainly a celebration for the kiddos, you’ll find adults getting in on the action, too, dressing up and parading around as la Befana.

Feeling festive? Perhaps you want to get into the act, too… You could wish people “Buona Befana!,” a popular greeting on January 6 in Italy.

This could be a great time to adopt a fun new tradition, with kids, family or friends. All you need is una calza, a stocking!

Buona Befana, and hope she brings you caramelle!

Have you heard of la Befana before? Do you have any special observances for Epiphany?

Have fun practicing the Italian words in this story on Quizlet!! Click here to access the Quizlet Christmas Round-up list, and use the password JODINA.

Posted in Italian Customs, Italian Holidays, Italian Vocabulary, learn italian | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Holiday Vocab Round-up! Top 30 Italian Christmas Words & Phrases + Quizlet Practice Set!

Ciao ragazzi!

Before going on holiday break, my students asked if I would create some materials to help them practice their Italian and stay engaged with the language during the holidays…

So, here’s a round-up of the most popular Italian Christmas words and phrases. I’ve set it up the same as the “Words of the Week” (WoWs). WoWs are words we choose and practice each week from the materials we’re working on in class.

I’ve added this week’s WoWs below, to a list I created in Quizlet. If you’re already familiar with Quizlet, then you know how engaging and fun it is to use the many interactive exercises it features to build your vocabulary and strengthen your memory. Click here to access the Quizlet Christmas Round-up list and use the password JODINA.

  1. Natale: Christmas
  2. la vigilia di Natale: Christmas Eve
  3. il presepe, il presepio: Manger, nativity scene
  4. i regali: gifts, presents
  5. gli addobbi: Decorations
  6. le luci: lights (also, “le luminarie”)
  7. le palline: ornaments (lit. little balls)
  8. l’albero di Natale: Christmas tree
  9. la stella: star
  10. il vischio: mistletoe
  11. le castagne: chestnuts
  12. le caldarroste: roasted chestnuts (also called castagne arrostite)
  13. il panettone: Italian Christmas cake (dome shaped with candied fruit and raisins)
  14. le lenticchie: lentils (eaten to ensure good fortune in the new year)
  15. il cenone: big dinner, from the word cena (dinner) plus the suffix -one, indicating large
  16. la chiesa: church
  17. santa messa: holy mass
  18. Gesù Bambino: Baby Jesus
  19. Babbo Natale: Santa Claus (Father Christmas – babbo is a colloquial word originating in Tuscany and meaning dad, daddy, pops)
  20. Buon Natale!: Merry Christmas!
  21. Buone Feste!: Happy Holidays!  
  22. Auguri di stagione!: Seasons Greetings!
  23. Capodanno: New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day (lit. the head/end/extremity of the year)
  24. Buon Anno!: Happy New Year!
  25. Prospero e felice anno nuovo!: Prosperous and Happy New Year!
  26. l’Epifania: Epiphany, celebrated Jan 6th
  27. i Re Magi: the wise men (three kings, magi)
  28. la Befana: gift-bringing witch (comes on Epiphany)
  29. la calza: stocking (to hold candies and small gifts la Befana brings)
  30. i biglietti di auguri: greeting cards

Got any Italian holiday questions or words to add to the list?

Let me know if you like this and find it helpful… If I know people are using it, I’ll create more practice materials!

Posted in Italian Holidays, Italian Vocabulary, learn italian | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

La Madonnina, La Befana & Babbo Natale

~ The holy trinity of present bringers ~


limoncello and biscotti


     As I sit here sipping on limoncello and nibbling biscotti, I am thinking to myself that it’s time for another blog post. So why not tell you about la Madonnina, la Befana and Babbo Natale?… this time of year in Italy you’d hear quite a few people name-dropping these illustrious personages… but just who are these three characters, and what do they have to do with an Italian Christmas?


While they certainly are not the holy trinity, we could perhaps group them together as a trinity of Christmas gift bringers — that’s at least one thing that they do all have in common.

statue of la madonnina on milan's duomo rooftop

     La Madonnina, meaning little Madonna, is the nickname of the Virgin Mary, especially common in Milan. La Madonnina is also the name of the golden statue of the Virgin Mary that adorns the top of Milan’s majestic Duomo cathedral, both characteristic symbols of the city.


La Madonnina, or the Virgin Mary, has her own special national holiday — L’Immacolata Concezione (the Immacolate Conception) — on December 8th, observed throughout Italy. Though this day is not actually associated with Christmas, it ushers in the holiday season, much like Thanksgiving does in the U.S.


la befana riding on a broomstick


     La Befana is a character of a much less saintly appearance. A much-loved icon of Italian folklore, she is depicted as a grandmotherly figure riding a broom, wearing a shawl and covered in soot. Lore has it that la Befana zips in and out of chimneys on the eve of the Epiphany (Jan. 6) delivering little presents (candy, fruit, etc) to good children and coal to the naughty ones.


     The advent of  Babbo Natale in Italy, known as Santa Claus in English (and translating literally to Daddy Christmas), was likely inspired by American GIs dressed up as Santa in Italy during WWII. This makes Babbo Natale a relatively new player on the Italian Christmas scene. Prior to Babbo Natale, the main bringer of presents in Italy was la Befana, and the goodies were delivered after Christmas, on January 6th*. Many older Italians in fact, only recall presents being brought on Epiphany, when they would hang up their calze (stockings) for the old lady to fill during the night.


(Epiphany is when the three wise men are to have arrived in Bethlehem. This holiday ushers out the Christmas season in Italy.)


italian santa claus on vespa scooter


     Babbo Natale therefore is somewhat of an interloper… and while the tradition of la Befana is alive and well in Italy, the Babbo has certainly supplanted her in many homes, where only Babbo Natale comes on the night between the 24th and 25th. Though some lucky kids get regali (gifts) from both Santa and la Befana… kind of  the way some kids in the U.S. hang up a stocking for St. Nicholas on the 6th or 7th of December and also get presents from Santa.


     And there you have the three Italian Christmas gift bringers: La Befana brings the sweets and the treats, Babbo Natale brings the regali, and la Madonnina brings perhaps the most important gift of all — il Gesu Bambino (the Baby Jesus).


     Oh, and I almost forgot … another really cool thing that they all have in common is that they all have songs dedicated to them!


Oh Mia Bella Madunina

(Video with nice pictures of Milano, subtitles in Milanese)



Santa Claus Is Coming to Town“, Michael Bublé


La Befana Vien di Notte is nursery rhyme Italian children  learn.

(Lyrics below.)



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


The English translation is:

The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live the Befana!



     I wasn’t able to find a video of the Befana song, but I did find this entertaining storyteller recounting the “Befana’s Italian Christmas Story,” filmed at Epcot in Disney World.




Had you heard of la Befana before? Got any good Befana stories? Who’s più simpatico (more charming), la Befana or Babbo Natale? Love, love, love your comments!


Buone feste e buon Natale! (Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!)


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Posted in Expressions, Italian Customs, Italian Holidays, Italian Music, Italian Vocabulary, learn italian, Sayings, Vocaboli Italiai | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments