My godson in Keighley will be leaving out a mince pie and a carrot for Santa and his reindeers before he goes to bed on Christmas eve. His Italian counterparts have to wait longer for their Christmas stocking to be filled, till the 6th of January when many countries celebrate Epiphany, or the day of the three wise men. It is the very last day of the Christmas celebrations.
The gift bearer in Italy is not Father Christmas but an old woman called La Befana, often referred to as Father Christmas’ wife. Usually depicted as a hook-nosed octogenarian, La Befana flies through the air on her broomstick. Her face and clothes are black with soot as, like Santa, she comes down the chimney. She brings with her a sack full of toys and treats for well-behaved children but leaves lumps of coal, onions or garlic for the naughty ones. Families leave her a small glass of wine and some tasty local delicacy as a thank you for her gifts. If she has the time, she might use her broom to sweep the floor, an act of kindness often pointed out to kids as proof that she has visited.
The origin of the Befana tradition is not clear. According to Victorian writers she is derived from the ancient Roman goddess Strina. Her festival was celebrated on the first of January with an exchange of gifts. Presents in both Italy and nearby Malta where children are given money on New Year’s day, are still called Strina to this very day.
There are two folk legends explaining the origin of the Befana. The most popular depicts her as a house-proud spinster living on the road to Bethlehem at the time when Jesus was born. The three wise men call on her to ask for shelter and invite her to go along with them in search of the newly-born Christ. She accepts but, unable to leave until she has tidied the house, she gets left behind. By the time she takes the road, bearing toys for Jesus, it is too late. The magi, and the Holy Family, have left Bethlehem. La Befana is still searching for Jesus to this very day, giving presents to every child she meets in case he is the Christ.
A second, lesser known story, tells of a mother mourning a long-dead baby. The magi call on her but she turns them away. At night, she sees the star of Bethlehem shining in the sky and has a change of heart. She follows it and finds the new-born Jesus in a stable. Delighted by her gifts of bread and woollen blanket, the Christ-child makes her the mother of all Italian children and entrusts her with the task of handing out Christmas gifts every year.
The tradition of La Befana is still strong in Italy to this very day and has even been exported to other countries where there are huge Italian immigrant communities. Mother Christmas appears in parades, at markets and prize-giving ceremonies. Piazza Navona in Rome hosts an annual market selling toys and sweets shaped like lumps of charcoal. Children in Rome are told that the Befana takes off from one of the windows in the piazza on the 6th of January. The old lady features in poems, sonnets, stories and even in Ottorino Resphigi’s music. The fourth movement in his Feste Romane is entitled La Befana. The old woman who started out as a humble housekeeper on the outskirts of Bethlehem today enjoys worldwide celebrity status.
What would you like Befana to bring you this year? Leave your wishes in the comment box and I’ll see if I can have a word with her.
Other Christmas posts:
Great Joy – Kate DiCamillo
Joy To The World – Christmas legends from around the world
Buy Joy To The World from Amazon.