Sunday, January 3, 2016

La Befana~~guest Blogger Francesca Di Meglio

The Christmas Witch

I'm a Believer - Stories of the Italian Christmas Witch Our Paesani

By Francesca Di Meglio


Italy is such a magical place for children that they receive gifts from not one
but two mythical figures during the holiday season. You see in Italy, the
holiday season really lasts through Jan. 6, or the Epiphany, and on that day La
Befana, known to some as the Christmas witch, brings goodies to all of Italy's
children. When my father was a child growing up in Ischia, a small island near
Napoli, he - along with his friends - excitedly awaited the arrival of La Befana
every year. They would hang their sisters' old stockings on the side of their
beds, and the next morning the stockings would be filled with tangerines,
chestnuts, a pencil for school and one piece of chocolate. You'd get charcoal if
you were naughty - and that happened to my father one year when he was
repeatedly cutting class to play soccer.

In those days, money was scarce and La Befana, was often all the people had in
the way of gifts during the holiday season. But now most Italian families get a
visit from Babbo Natale (Santa Clause) on Dec. 25 as well. La Befana rarely, if
ever, visited our home in America when I was a kid. But whenever we spent the
holidays in Italy, she arrived on her broom and we would get a few extra goodies
- tangerines, chestnuts and a toy or two. I remember when I was 10 or 11, we
went to Ischia for Christmas and on Jan. 6, I woke up to find a baby blue teddy
bear that whispered "Ti voglio tanto bene" ("I love you very much") whenever I
rubbed his belly. I never really understood why Italian children adored an ugly
witch with a big nose and ugly red mole who traveled in rags via broom. But she
brought me a sweet blue bear.

How bad could she be? As an adult, I learned that she's not bad at all. And the
folk stories behind La Befana are heart warming. Despite her looks, she'll make
a believer of anyone - and that, in a nutshell, is what the holidays are all
about. Legend has it that she was an old Italian grandma-type happily cleaning
her house, when three men showed up at her door. No fool, she was skeptical. She
shooed them away when they said they were searching for baby Jesus, the newborn
king. After a little while, she had second thoughts.

Perhaps, the men were honest and telling the truth. If so, she missed her chance
to help them reach the king. She decided she should try to catch up with them.
But they were long gone. So, she handed out gifts to all of the children in the
neighborhood in the hopes that one of them was Jesus. Every year she goes to
look for the three wise men - and most importantly baby Jesus. When she does,
she leaves little surprises for the little Italian girls and boys. Some say she
didn't go with the wise men because she had chores to do.

Others believe she promised to find them after she finished the housework. Still
others have an entirely different version of the story. I've also heard that La
Befana was a mother to a son who lived in King Herod's day. Herod reportedly
decreed that each male child born was to be killed because one of them could be
the new king. La Befana was so traumatized when her son was murdered that she
didn't believe he was really killed. She set out in search of him carrying all
of his belongings in a sack. She quickly aged from worry - her face became
wrinkled, her hair turned gray and she grew to look like an old, haggard lady.
She finally found a male baby in a manger and she laid out her son's belongings
at the baby's feet. The baby was Jesus Christ. And He blessed the lady as
“Befana,” the giver of gifts. After that, every year on Jan. 5, the eve of the
Epiphany, she would be mother to all of the world's children and would care for
them by bringing them treats.       

I personally prefer to believe that last story is the truth. Who can't feel for
a grief stricken mamma? What a lovely thought that a woman who lost her baby can
turn her sadness into an excuse to nurture all children, including Jesus. But
you can pick your favorite legend and stick with it. That's the beauty of La
Befana. Traditionally, the Epiphany or Little Christmas is a holiday for
children in Italy. But the adults never give up a chance for a feast. Many
family and friends go from house to house visiting one another after opening La
Befana's gifts in the morning.

There are parades featuring the Christmas witch - at which she is sometimes
joined by her companion Befano. The children sing songs to her and dolls are
left out in the windows. Some families burn the dolls to cancel out the past
year and usher in good luck. You can start your own La Befana traditions. Just
leave out your old socks or shoes for her to fill on Jan. 5 - and believe!

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