Did you know there is a Witch associated with Christmas? She is believed to be of Italian origin, yet some anthropologists have traced her origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices. Some of their writings portray her as a figure that eventually evolved into a goddess of fertility and agriculture.
Befana is widely celebrated in Italy, portrayed as an old lady riding a broom through the air, and wearing a black shawl. She is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag filled with fruits, nuts, candy and gifts for children. She is sometimes portrayed carrying a lantern in one hand, and a bag of treats in the other. The traditions of Befana incorporate many pre-Christian elements, however, there are a number of Christianized versions of her legend. Historians have suggested that Befana is a descendant of the Roman goddess Strina, or Strenia, who presided over the new years’ gifts, and were also known to give fruits and nuts. These two words sound similar to Strega, an Italian word that means Witch.
According to Befana folklore, she does not wish to be seen, and anyone who sees her will receive a thump from her broom. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate of food for the Befana.
The Christianized versions of Befana connect her to the biblical Epiphany. Epiphany is a Christian/Catholic holiday that is celebrated on January 6th, the twelfth day after Christmas. Though many different cultural and denominational customs are practiced, in general, the holiday celebrates the manifestation of God in the form of human flesh through Jesus Christ. The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation” and is commonly linked in Western Christianity with the visit of the three “Wise Men“, or Magi (magician),to the Christ child. Some believe the word Befana comes from the Greek word epifania, meaning appearance. In Italian folklore, Befana delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to Santa Claus. Christian legend has it that Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of the infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy or fruit, while the bad children get coal, onions and garlic. There are other similar versions. Even in this particular version, one can still see many pagan elements. It should be noted that several historians consider Befana to have pagan origins.
La Befana has been an Italian tradition since the 13th century. The arrival of La Befana is celebrated with traditional Italian foods and marks the end of the long and festive holiday season in Italy. The company Byers Choice, (located right here in Pennsylvania), regularly releases collectible dolls of Befana. They are quite beautiful. I’m not certain if there’s a new Befana every year, but several different Befana dolls have been released by this company in the past.
There are poems about Befana, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy.
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!
The English translation is:
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
Another version is given below in a poem by Giovanna Pascoli.
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana
The English translation is:
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!