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.
La Befana and Her Search for the Christ Child
There is a wealth of material on La Befana on the internet. What I have learned from the readings cited at the end of this posting is that La Befana has roots in pre-Christian times. There was a pagan goddess who ruled over the custom of gift giving at the time of the Winter Solstice. She represented the dying year and her gifts were the last ones she would bestow for the year.
With the coming of Christianity the story gradually evolved. La Befana was an old woman who lived alone in the country. On the night of Christ’s birth, the Three Wise Men stopped by her home to invite her to journey with them to Bethlehem. She declined citing that she had too much housework to do. The Wise Men told her the significance of the birth and the splendid star in the sky. La Befana still declined.
Shortly after the Wise Men left her house La Befana thought of the child she had lost. She wanted to see the Christ child and bring him a gift. She also wanted to help Mother Mary by cleaning up the place where the baby now was. In a hurry, La Befana grabbed her broom, packed some toys into a basket, put on her old shoes and ragged shawl. She set out to find the Holy Child but was unable to locate the correct road to take.
Then something magical happened. La Befana rose into the air and sat on her broom. She travelled throughout the night, stopping at houses where children lived. She went down the chimney and left gifts for good children. Bad children got a lump of coal.
Every year La Befana seeks the Christ child and continues to leave her gifts or lumps of coal. To win her favors an offering of wine and some sweet bread or cake is left for her.
My Reaction to La Befana
I found the folklore of La Befana rich in meaning. She represents to me the way in which the busyness of everyday life or holiday preparations can take over our minds. We become insensitive to an opportunity, an invitation or a call to journey towards something above and beyond the mundane. The moments when such promptings come are infrequent. Hesitation in seizing the moment can lead to regret later on. Moments of inspiration or realization are gifts that come to us at the most unpredictable time. It is good to take pause from our daily round of activities and give ourselves over to realizing what it is that calls us to a change of direction.
The Three Wise Men visiting the Christ Child.
This clipart is similar to the kinds of illustrations that filled the religious books I read as a child. The emotional component is high when I see illustrations like this because they bring back happy memories of my religious instruction classes.
The image of La Befana is a little difficult for me to take a liking to. As an American I associate images of older women riding on brooms with Halloween. Even though La Befana has a kindly face and aspect there is too much of Halloween in the imagery for me to wholeheartedly adopt it for Christmas or Epiphany. This kind of imagery belongs to the period of days between All Hallows’ Eve and All Souls Day. It is imagery for a time period where we reflect on our departed and pray for their spirits. For me Epiphany will always be the Feast day when the Three Wise Men visited the Christ child. The rich imagery and symbolism of the gifts the Magi brought can never be replaced by La Befana in my personal observations of the day. This is one aspect of my own experience of growing up Italian-American that shows how different the children and grandchildren of immigrants become from their family in the ancestral country. My responses have been conditioned by growing up as an American with the images of Halloween affecting how I perceive La Befana. However much I intellectually understand her story, the emotional part of me cannot accept her image as part of my personal celebration of Epiphany. Others may experience this differently. I am describing my own responses.
Discussion with Uncle Sammy, December 30, 2015 by email
An illustration of Santa from the WWII era when my Mom was in her early teens and Uncle Sammy was a baby.
Uncle Sammy said Josie and Sam never taught him about an Epiphany celebration that included La Befana. Santa Claus was the one who brought the gifts on Christmas Eve. I do not remember my Mom mentioning this character either. In the part of Dyker Heights in Brooklyn where I grew up none of my friends ever spoke of La Befana. When I attended JHS 201 and New Utrecht High School the Italian language teachers often gave us short lessons on Italian history and culture. As an example, some of our lessons covered the Unification, poetess Ada Negri, Italian artists of the Renaissance, opera singers like Enrico Caruso and author Giuseppe Lampedusa.
I do not know the reason why La Befana was never taught as part of the folk culture of Italy as we grew up. My thoughts are that since the story is a combination of pagan and peasant elements, the immigrants may have wanted to leave it behind in a desire to assimilate to the American mainstream culture. If any of my readers of Italian descent experienced Epiphany with the inclusion of La Befana as part of the festivities please reply in the Comments section of this posting. I’d enjoy your input on this topic.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Befana
La Befana – Italiansrus.com http://www.italiansrus.com/articles/befana.htm
Forget Santa. You should celebrate La Befana.
Because what Christmas Needs is a wine drinking witch
By Betsy Woodruff
Italy: La Befana, the original Good Witch http://www.superiorconcept.org/Firstnight/italia.htm
La Befana and Epiphany
January 6 Events
By Martha Bakerjian
The Befana tradition – ItalyHeritage
La Befana – an Italian Christmas tradition – Italian-Link.com
“Santa Claus – A Man of Many Faces”
By Dixie Allan. Clip Art Expert
“The Three Wise Men”
“Jolly Old St. Nick”
Artist unknown-Public Domain
“Season’s Greetings from NARA”
Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board. (01/1942 – 11/03/1945)