Tuesday, January 5, 2010

La Befana ~ A Holiday Witch

A friend, Suzie of Cat in the Pumpkin Moon, recently wrote of La Befana. I, too, would like to share with you the history of this Holiday Witch.

La Befana is a character in Italian folklore who delivers presents to children throughout Italy, in a similar way to St. Nicholas or Santa Claus. The character may have originated in Rome, then spread as a tradition to the rest of Italy.

A popular belief is that her name derives from the festival of Epiphany, but there is evidence to suggest that Befana is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strenia, who presided over the new-year's gifts which were called 'Strenae. Strenia's presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey.

In popular folklore La Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the 6th of January to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. Being a good housekeeper, many say La Befana will sweep the floor before she leaves. The child's family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food for the Befana.

She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broom through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or basket filled with candy, gifts, or both.

Christian legend has it that La Befana was approached by the Magi a few days before Christ's birth. They asked for directions to where the baby Jesus was, 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. They 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 baby Jesus. She leaves all the good children toys and candy, while the bad children get coal or bags of ashes.

Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

Also, popular tradition says that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn't wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds while parents are distributing candy (or coal) and sweeping the floor on Epiphany Eve.


Suzie said...

Delightful read, Jeanne! I didn't know the version of her losing her child (too traumatic to even contemplate!), nor about the broom thumping.

I KNEW that I'd learn something new when I read your blog!

And the illustration is SO cute!!

Thanks so much for sharing, and for the blog sing out! You're SO sweet to do so!!


magikalseasons said...

Really wonderful! I've only heard one version. Gives me an idea for an ornament La Befana and Krampus. They'd make a fun holiday pair! :)

Kelly said...

Thank you for posting this.Every year,along with my more traditional cookie shapes for Christmas I always bake up some witch and broomstick cookies.And I always make it a point to wish everyone well on Befana's Day.
Several years ago,I saw Isabella Rosselini interviewed somewhere and she talked about celebrating Befana's Day in Italy with her children.

The Frog Queen said...

I loved that you shared both versions of the story! I had not heard the second, that is very interesting.

My great grandmother was from Italy so I can claim this as part of my heritage when the rest of the family looks at me like I am crazy for putting something "Halloweenlike" in my holiday celebrations! I am so excited!

BTW - Sorry Suzie that I read this before yours. :) I am off to your blog next! :)


Bridgett said...

Fascinating stuff!
Your blog is very educational! :)