Childrens Book Review of The Legend of Old Befana: Italian Christmas Story Retold by Tomie dePaola

by DerdriuMarriner

The Christmas season brings gifts many times to Italian and Italian-American children. It commences December 6 and ends January 6. December 24 involves “The Legend of Old Befana.”

Gifts traditionally are not exchanged just on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in Italy. They can be given on:
• December 5 – 6;
• December 24 – 25;
• January 5 – 6.

December 6 commemorates Santa Claus’s role model, San Nicola di Bari (Saint Nicholas, March 15, 270 – December 6, 343). January 6 conjures images of Three Wise Men offering presents to:
• Jesus (6 B.C.? – A.D. 29?);
• Joseph (died July 20, A.D. 18/19);
• Mary (18 B.C.? – A.D. 41?).

But who delivers gifts on January 5? Children of Italy’s islands and peninsula and of the Italian diaspora find their shoes filled with:
• Candies;
• Fruits;
• Toys.

They have a big-hearted senior citizen to thank. The gift-giving yearly re-enacts “The Legend of Old Befana.”


Tomie dePaola's website:


In Italian legend, industrious housekeeper Befana initially is too focused on sweeping to accompany the Wise Men on their journey to honor newly born Jesus. ~

"I Tre Re Magi" (The Three Wise Men), detail of "Maria col Bambino attorniata da angeli" (Mary and and child surrounded by angels): 526 mosaic by Master of Sant'Apollinare
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, east central Emilia Romagna Region, northeastern Italy
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, east central Emilia Romagna Region, northeastern Italy


Balthazar, Casper, and Melchior anticipate the birth of a king whose deeds and words will be worldwide in their impacts. They await information in the night sky as to the birth’s precise date and place. They find what they seek in the sudden appearance of the sky’s brightest-ever star. Their following the star to its overhead location generates crowds along the way. People at each stop en route know that the Three Wise Men intend to honor the newborn king who will heed and help the world’s poor. Balthazar, Casper, and Melchior make a stop in the hometown of one of the world’s tidiest senior citizens. The inveterate cleaner, indoors and outside, responds to the name Befana.  


According to Italian tradition, children's goodness is rewarded with presents not only from Santa but also from industrious housekeeper Befana.

colorful display of Befanas
Mercato di Natale, piazza Navona, Rome, west central Italy: December 27, 2009
Mercato di Natale, piazza Navona, Rome, west central Italy: December 27, 2009


Old Befana does not stray too far away from her broom. She gets her house sparkling clean every day. Then she goes outside to do likewise all the way down to the street. She is interested in accompanying the Three Wise Men on their journey. But she must finish her daily cleaning first. She then needs to bake and make worthy presents. Old Befana pursues the Three Wise Men with her ever-handy broomstick. But prioritizing cleaning and then gift-making results in delays which cannot be compensated for or overcome. Old Befana never sees the Holy Family or the Three Wise Men. So she stops at children’s houses during her yearly recreations of the Three Wise Men’s path.


The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola

This is a delightful reading of the favorite Italian Christmas story about an eccentric old woman and her never-ending search for the Baby King.
Tomie dePaola stories



Tomie dePaola brings experience and expertise to his illustrations and texts. Experience comes from being the best qualified candidate through:

  • Talent;
  • Training.

The education section of his resume details completions of:

  • B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York;
  • M.F.A. from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland;
  • Ph.D. equivalency from Lone Mountain College in San Francisco, California.

The author – illustrator gives excellent accountings of his artistic and literary positions, proclivities, and programs with every publication. The quality predictably is high in his bold, colorful folk art and folklore styles for The Legend of Old Befana. Librarians and teachers usually target the 1980-released holiday tale for:

  • Ages 5 – 10+;
  • Grades kindergarten through fifth grade.


La Befana

Published on YouTube on December 26, 2012 by ElPolloReal ~ URL:



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


Befana does not punish children with lumps of coal: instead, because she is win-win for all children, she leaves rock candy blackened by caramelization.

ovids of coal
ovids of coal

Sources Consulted


"About Tomie: Biography." Retrieved December 13, 2014.

  • Available at:

dePaola, Tomie. 1980. The Legend of Old Befana. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.

“La vera storia.” La Retrieved December 13, 2014.

  • Available at:


the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Befana in Rome: print by Antoine Jean Baptiste Thomas (October 31, 1791 – 1833)

Befana in Rome

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 12/13/2014, DerdriuMarriner
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


DerdriuMarriner on 12/15/2014

Mira, Yes, I agree: the Ravenna mosaic is beautiful!

Mira on 12/14/2014

That mosaic is beautiful :)

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