La Befana: The Italian Witch

By Alberto Macchione

Christmas was over and the inevitable post yule tide remorse sets in. The feast is over, the family disperses, the presents are packed away and the decorations seem to take a different meaning, like a tombstone marking that the spirit of Christmas had passed through these walls in days past.

I come from a family of Italian immigrants and no country has contributed more to the traditions of the secular and Christian Christmas than Italy.  In my parent’s day, in the small villages of southern Italy, Christmas wasn’t such a big deal and there wasn’t much said of the Santa Claus we all know and love. My mother told me that they didn’t really give out much in the way of presents on Christmas day. Instead, they were still waiting for the real Santa Claus, only the real Santa Claus wasn’t a big fat man in a bright red suit but rather a woman, a tattered scrawny old woman, a witch in fact. Then it struck me, there are ’12 days of Christmas’. My mother was right. Christmas isn’t truly over until January 6th known as ‘The Epiphany’ in some Christian faiths.

So Christmas in the Christian Calendar is a little longer than many realize and that the birth of Jesus is somewhere near the beginning of that story. So what does the birth of Jesus have to do with an old witch?

There are many stories and legends that follow this Old Witch, and like many Christmas traditions, they are derived from a mix of Christian beliefs, pagan myths and rituals. My mother explained. A long time ago in the times of King Herrod, a woman fell hopelessly in love with a wonderful man, the love was powerful, passionate, all-consuming love. But like many Italian love stories and sadly many Italian realities as evident in my own family, the love, was not to be and the woman lost her husband.

She spent her days cleaning and sweeping and baking and tending her garden. She spent her life childless and alone. Many believe her to be an angry and vengeful, some believed her to be an evil witch who, now bitter and alone, hated children.

The Three Wise Men were off to bring gifts to the Holy Child. They asked the woman if she wanted to come with them on their journey to visit the Baby Jesus, however, she refused them, saying that she had too much housework to do. With the Three Wise Men having left on their journey to take gifts to the Boy Child, the woman realized she had made a mistake and should have joined them. She took off after them in an attempt to catch up to the Three Wise Men but could not find them nor the Newborn.

The night of The Epiphany’ (January 6th) the woman would fly on her broomstick visiting every child in the world searching for the Three Wise Men and the Baby Jesus.  Some say that for this night, the night of The Epiphany, the old woman nicknamed ‘La Befana’ had been granted all the children in the world as her own.

Every Italian knows a version of this very famous poem as sung to me every year in its original Italian. Below it is translated in English.

“The Befana comes at night

In worn out shoes

Dressed like a Roman

Long live the Befana!”

Anon.

Exhausted and being unable to find the Wise Men or The Boy, she started a journey where she would check every house and being the good housekeeper she is, she would sweep the floor and clean the house. Knowing of her impending arrival, children would leave their socks on the end of their beds and the woman would leave the good children gifts and put coal in the socks and stockings of the bad children before leaving to attend to the next child.

My mother would tell me how she could not sleep with the excitement of knowing that La Befana was coming. Today in Italy people still honor the traditions of La Befana as do many Italians around the world. People often give the gift of candy and sweets on the day to honor the 12th day of The Epithany, the night of La Befana.

Now the question is, ‘Will there be any coal in my stocking on the 6th of January?’ In any case, I am at least guaranteed a clean house!

Alberto Macchione is a blogger, Italophile and pop culture writer. 

Speak Your Mind