Christmas season in Italy officially kicks off December 8th with the Immaculate Conception and concludes the 6th of January.
There are many names for this last day- Little Christmas, the Epiphany, to name of few. But in Rome, this day is affectionately known as “Befana”, referring to the good witch that flies around on her broom, bringing gifts to children the night of January 5th. There are several stories of Befana the Christmas Witch- According to one Christian legend, the Three Wise Men stopped by her house to ask for directions a few days before Jesus was born. She couldn’t point them in the right direction, however she did offer them shelter for the night. Impressed by her hospitality, the magi invited her to join them on their journey the next morning.
But Befana declined, citing that she was too busy with her housework. She changed her mind later that day but unfortunately it was too late, and she never found them. The second story varies slightly in that, the day the Three Wise Men came to the Befana, she turned them away because she was too busy with her chores. A more morbid version is that Befana was just an ordinary woman whose child died at a very early age. Her grief resulted in her madness, as she believed the baby Jesus about to be born was her son. When she finally made her way over to him bearing gifts, the baby was so touched that he appointed her the mother of all Italian children. Whichever version you chose to believe it up to you. But one thing is (almost) proven – the tradition originated in Rome and is extremely popular to this day. If you visit the famous Piazza Navona Christmas Market, you’ll see many people dressed up in Befana’s honor.
December 26th is also a religious holiday – Santo Stefano, where banks, offices, and shops remain closed. Being a predominately Catholic country, don’t be surprised to find a lot of establishments closed throughout the month of December. Even if the closures aren’t as many as they once were in Italy. The first week of January also marks the winter sale season in Italy. These “saldi” are only held twice a year (the other time is during the summer), so many serious shoppers will have had months to prepare their lists.