This is one of the times of year I like best. (One of the times, there are lots of others.) But this one holds some special treats for an Italian. Like the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve (and depending on where you’re from there may be more fish). It’s a delightful way to spend an evening. And then the desserts! That’s just the build up to the feasting that takes place on the big day.
Of course, there’s Santa and what he brings to the table. But for an Italian Christmas stretches on longer than for others. And Old St. Nick is not the only personage who comes bearing gifts.
In Italy children are treated to more than the beneficence of Santa, or as he is called there, Babbo Natale. Father Christmas is a familiar figure throughout Europe but in Italy there is someone else who also spreads gifts and joy and sometimes even lumps of coal. And she, also, keeps a list and checks it twice before she sets out on her gift-giving journey.
La Befana is the legendary figure Italian children write letters to and wait for at this time of year. But she doesn’t compete with Babbo Natale trying to shimmy down chimneys to deliver her gifts on Christmas Eve.
The old woman of the Christmas season arrives flying in on her broom and laden with gifts on the eve of Little Christmas or The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. The days stretching from December 26th to January 6th are the true Twelve Days of Christmas. Many Americans confuse the issue by insisting that the twelve days are those immediately prior to December 25th but this is not the case.
In fact, January 6th is celebrated in Europe far more than it is here or anywhere else. Epiphany or the Feast of the Three Kings is a huge holiday in Europe and in many ethnic communities here in the U.S. But, as far as I’m aware, only Italy has a personage who delivers presents to children on January 5th so that when they wake to the sound of church bells on January 6th, they will find lots goodies in the stockings they leave for this purpose.
La Befana was doing her thing long before even the original St. Nick left his presents for the people of his village in Turkey, especially the three young women who needed dowries.
It seems that many of Befana’s gift giving habits were borrowed and transferred. The Befana legend has been traced by some back to the time of King Herod and the killing of the Innocents. Some trace it even further back to pre-Christian “pagan” traditions of Roman times and their winter and new year celebrations and gift giving habits.
Of the two most common stories telling of the origin of La Befana, by far the most popular has to do with her meeting with the Three Kings or Wise Men.
The story goes that the Three Kings, as they meandered through Italy on their way to Bethlehem (okay so they didn’t have good maps), stopped for directions at the hovel in the Italian hills which La Befana called home. Hovel or no, Befana was a scrupulously clean and industrious woman and was quite busy cleaning, baking cakes and goodies, and working in her home.
The Three Kings, laden with gifts for the one they sought, asked Befana if she wanted to accompany them on their journey to see the Christ child and behold the miraculous event for herself. Of course, busy with her housework and not knowing much about what went on outside her home, Befana said she had no idea whom they were seeking. She picked up her broom, complaining that she had too much work to do and couldn’t go off on a trip. Then she bade them a good day and a safe journey. Off went the Three Kings without their directions. Befana for her part, went back to her sweeping and cooking.
Soon, however, Befana decided she’d made a mistake in refusing the invitation of the three colorful royals. So, she took her broom and some gifts for the Child and went in search of the Wise Men. No matter how hard she tried, she could not find them. Next she decided to follow the light of the star they’d told her about which might lead her to the stable and the Child. Hours and hours later, she was utterly lost.
The wondrous light in the sky, however, told her that the special child she sought was still out there to be found. But she was tired and old and found that she could neither go forward nor backward. Just then, however, pouring down on silvery rays of light from the star, a flight of angels took pity on Befana. They gave her the gift of flight on her broom and allowed her to travel anywhere she liked forever. That night Befana returned to her hovel having found neither the Wise Men nor the stable but grateful for the angelic gift. She soon came to understand just how she would use the gift of flight.
Befana still very much wanted to know who the Christ Child was and so, in order not to miss the opportunity to someday find him, she decided on a plan. Her newfound gift would help her realize what she needed to do. Out she went again, this time astride her broom and with a sack of goodies and treats she had made herself. Whenever she encountered a child, Befana gave them a treat in hopes that one of them might be the Baby Jesus that the three Wise Men had told her about. But it never turned out to be the one she sought. She decided to giver treats anyway since she liked to make children happy.
She still goes about searching for the Christ Child which is why she visits every home with a child in it and leaves a gift. Maybe it is the Child she seeks and maybe it is not but that doesn’t matter to her as much as making children smile. She has, it is said, decided that there is something of the Christ Child in all children and that making children happy is what the Baby Jesus would want her to do.
Ever since her first flight bearing gifts, Befana has been bringing the spirit of Christmas to all children on the eve of the Epiphany. Children know to set out their socks to be filled with candy and goodies. And if they’ve been bad, they get a lump of coal. (A punishment which Santa appropriated, to the dismay of children everywhere.)
So, this year, think about La Befana as the Epiphany comes closer and on January 5th, leave some wine and food out for her as families in Italy do. But don’t try to sneak a peek at her. She, like Santa, isn’t fond of being seen. Unlike Santa, La Befana will thump you with her broom if she catches you trying to see her.