Friday, December 2, 2011

La Befana, The Christmas Witch of Italy

     During the Christmas season or Yule, whichever you tend to celebrate, the jolly fellow that is best known is Santa Claus but in Italy he's not alone.  A lot of little children since about World War II have been finding gifts in their stockings by an old lady known as La Befana.
     On the night of January 5, Befana is believed to go from house to house leaving gifts of baked goods, toys, chestnuts and fruit in the stockings of good little boys and girls. If you've been bad you would get left a black 'coal', onions or garlic.
     Children would leave their stockings hanging over the fireplace or on their bed post and sometimes they would leave their shoes in anticipation of Befana leaving her gifts as she comes down their chimneys to visit them.  Who is this La Befana?
     Her name comes from the Greek word for the night of Epiphany which is the celebration of the Magi finding the baby Jesus.
     She was an old witch women who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve, the night of January 5. She may have originated in central Italy and then spread by popularity throughout Italy.  Befana was depicted as an old witch lady with a big red nose, slightly hunch back, wearing a black shawl, dressed in a jacket of colorful patches, covered in chimney shoot, wearing broken shoes and flying through the air riding a broomstick. She is also carrying a bag filled with children toys and gifts.
     There are many Christian legends about her. One goes that Befana was approach by the 3 biblical Magi who were following the star and searching for the holy child Jesus. They stopped at her home and asked for directions to where Jesus was. I guess following the star wasn't good enough. Befana informed them that she didn't know and haven't heard of a holy child being born. She offered them shelter for the night and the 3 wise men took her upon her offer seeing how clean and pleasant her house was. She was known in her little village of being a great housekeeper. After a night's rest, the Magi invited her to joined them on their quest but she refused by saying she was too busy with her housework and that she did have time.  Later on, La Befana changed her mind and decided to find the 2 wise men and the baby. She couldn't find them and so to this day she keeps searching leaving every child with gifts and toys.
     Another Christian version  was that she was an ordinary woman with a child who she loved very much. Well, her child died and the grief drove her mad. She then heard about the birth of the holy child Jesus so she went in search of him. She eventually found him and brought him gifts. This made the baby very happy and in turn he gifted her stating that she would be the mother of every child of Italy.
     A third version tells that Befana was a great housekeeper and spent her days always cleaning and sweeping her house. One day the 3 Magi came to her door looking for the infant. Befana being busy turned them away. That night she saw the bright light in the sky so she followed it and found Jesus herself. In anticipation she had brought baked goods and gifts for the baby in a bag. She also brought her broom in hopes that she would help the new mother, surely she would be busy with the new baby, clean her house. She searched and searched but she never found the them and she continues searching to this day.
     La Befana home was thought to be somewhere in Urbania, Italy where every year there is a big festival celebrating the night of Epiphany. About 30,000 to 50,000 people attend this festival ever year. People usually dress up like La Befana and parade the town. Some even attempt to swing from a tower imitating her flying through the sky. The Befanas juggles and dances entertaining the children.
     As I stated before the children expect to find gifts and fruits in their stockings or shoes but bad children would usually get a lump of 'coal'. Today's children would get a rock candy made black with caramel coloring which represents a lump of coal. Almost every child will receive this candy because all children aren't perfect. When she would leave the household, back up the chimney that she came down she would sweep the house with her broom. The parents of the household would also leave her a small glass of wine and a plate of goodies to eat.
     In the modern time the belief of the La Befana is becoming less popular due to the invasion of the belief of the jolly old man dressed in red and riding in a sleigh. Some children has adopted Santa Claus into the belief of La Befana. Some say that she is Santa's wife and she lives in the South Pole while her husband lives in the North pole. Also after Christmas, she helps Santa with his job. The children of the modern day Italy has even figured out what she does if you don't have a chimney. She comes through the keyhole.
     The mention of the Christmas witch, La Befana was first recorded historically in a poem by Agnolo
Firenzuola in 1549.
     The tradition of La Befana is a Christian tradition but she does have a pagan origin. Some historians believe that she comes from the tale of an 'old lady' ( wicker doll or a type of scarecrow figurine ) which was burned ( of course ) in the squares of many Italian villages to celebrate the end of the year. It was a ritual that symbolizes the end and birth of a year. A symbol of time cycles which is always ending and beginning. She also has a connection to the traditions of the Celtic people who were once living in the whole Pianura Podana and parts of the Alps. Here the Celtic people would burn wicker puppets in honor of the ancient gods. Through time the witch, shaman woman or priestess knew the secrets of nature became the image of La Befana. Her symbols of today's time had pagan roots as well. The 'coal' that she would leave was a symbol of fertility because it was connected to the sacred bonfires that the villages would have this time of the year to represent the turning of the wheel. The broom had connection to the trees and the nature rituals of the Celts. Also with the broom and her sweeping has another strong pagan connection to getting the house cleaned and ready for the next year; sweeping out the old and getting ready for the new.
     In some European folklore the 12 days between Christmas and the Epiphany was thought to be a space of time that witches was very strong especially on the 12th night, the night of the Epiphany. It was considered the  most magical night of the year. This was when forecasts and predictions of the future would be made. People would sit around the fireplaces spending the evening telling and spinning tales of magic and fantasy.
     In the Romagna region, Epiphant was a pagan festival when the ancestors would come and visit the living. They would bring with them good omens predicting an abundance to the living. The Befanotti which represents the Befana would go from house to house singing the "pasquella'.
     Just as writing letters to Santa Claus, children would leave notes of their wishes tucked up the chimney in hope that La Befana would find them. That night of her visit many people would throw parties and go from house to house visiting with friends and family members.
     Many traditions and beliefs of the La Befana is very similar to what we hold to the stories of Santa Claus. As I said the La Befana is loosing ground in these modern times to the belief of Santa Claus. I have a gut feeling that she also had a lot to do with the legends and stories of how Santa Claus came to be what he is today. Behind every strong man is usually a strong woman. So Mote It Be!

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