La Befana receiving the Three Wise Men at her home. In Italian folklore she is the bringer of gifts to children on Epiphany.
When I was a child my maternal Grandma Josie and Grandpa Sam never discussed Christmas observances in Italy. We had the rich traditions of the Italian-American communities in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania and Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, New York to draw on. All I did know was what I learned in religious instruction classes at St. Bernadette’s Shrine Church: that the feast of Epiphany on January 6th is when children in Europe receive their presents.
Cheery images of Santa Claus were part of my childhood Christmases.
The Three Wise Men and Epiphany involved a different level of gift giving in my mind. Santa Claus also had a part in my childhood. He was a jolly delivery man who I never equated with anything other than someone who brought the gifts the elves made in their North Pole Workshop. Santa existed at the popular level and the Three Wise Men at a higher level. But the two never connected for me as being the same. Epiphany was a feast day and something sacred. It pertained to God and therefore deserved a serious and quiet reverence.
This is how I grew up understanding the difference. I’m sure a religious teacher would find flaws in this but there was little consideration or discussion about it. Santa Claus and the Three Wise Men co-existed in the glittering and beautiful world of the entire Christmas Holiday. The Sisters who taught me never commented on Santa Claus. They gave us small presents each year like a prayer card, a pen, or some candy. They reminded us that we received a gift each morning when we woke up and were blessed with another day of life. Good health, a house to live in, food to eat, and playmates were some of the gifts the Sisters taught us that God gives us every day. Christ was the ultimate gift for all time. When I looked at it that way Santa Claus never took a superior position in my childhood imagination.
So how did Italian children celebrate Christmas and Epiphany?
Since I do not know how my maternal Grandpa Sam experienced Christmas as a child in Agropoli I did some research on gift giving in Italy during Epiphany.
What I learned is a complete surprise! Santa Claus has been popular in Italy since the end of WWII. He is called Babbo Natale which means something like Daddy Christmas (Babbo=Dad and Natale=Christmas). Italian children, though, have a unique bringer of gifts on Epiphany that is all their own. Her name is La Befana. She’s a kindly old woman bringing a basket of gifts. But I took pause as I read on. I thought, “How cool is this? Here’s an older woman bringing gifts.” Then I had to think a little more because of my reaction to imagery of La Befana: she flies on a broom through the sky.