04 January 2010

The Befana

I was in the grocery store the other day when a little kid, about 5 years old, said to me, “what are those?” He was pointing to a display of rather ugly Befana witches hanging in a prominent point of sale position near the checkout counter.

“Witches,” I said. His eyed widened and I could see that he was afraid of them, so I quickly added, “but they are good witches.”

I thought it an odd question but when he backed up against his mother I realized they were not Italian but South American. And from the look on his face I’m sure his mother is going to have to do a lot of explaining over the next few days.

The litttle boy probably knows the Epiphany as el Dia de los Tres Reyes, or la Fiesta de Reyes. It isn't surprising that he never heard of the Befana as the Befana is a uniquely Italian creation. She was originally a pagan Goddess, I'm guessing Strenia since the word for gifts in Italian is strega, and like many other Roman Gods and Goddesses this pagan Goddess was gradually incorporated into Christianity.

The Christian story is that the Befana gave shelter to the three Wise Men who were on their way to see the Baby Jesus. They wanted her to go with them but she refused. Then she changed her mind, but by then it was too late. So to make up for it she began bringing sweets and gifts to children which she puts in the stockings they hang up the night of January 5. The next day, January 6 is the Epiphany, the end of the Christmas season, the last of the 12 days of Christmas we all sing about.

I remember my father telling me how thrilled he used to be to find an orange among the goodies in his stocking on the morning of the Epiphany. That was in the pre iPod, Gameboy Italy of the early 1900’s. An orange may not be as special now as it was a hundred years ago but other things never change. For the past few weeks I’ve passed many a mother and grandmother sing songing this rhyme to their little ones:

la Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte, con un sacco pien di doni da portare ai bimbi buoni.”

Loosely translated it says, the Befana comes at night with broken shoes and a bag full of presents to give to good children. What it doesn’t say is that if they are not good all they will find in their stocking is a lump of coal. And the kids know this is true because lumps of the stuff are on sale everywhere. And who knows how the Befana spends her time between Epiphanies, maybe she makes all that sugar coal herself, or ….

There are a lot of things we don’t know. For example, sometimes she flies in on a broom and comes down the chimney, but then again she may come on a donkey and get in through the keyhole. You never know so you might want to leave a few carrots on the windowsill just in case. After all, she is a witch.

Photos: The Befana and her stash of coal, Filling a Epiphany stocking; A more gentle Befana

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