22d-Growing up Italian-American: La Befana? Who is that?

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La Befana receiving the Three Wise Men at her home. In Italian folklore she is the bringer of gifts to children on Epiphany.

Introduction

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.

 

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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.

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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

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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.

 

Readings

 

Overview

La Befana  http://www.qc.edu/calandra/community/commbefa.html

 

Befana

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

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/holidays/2014/12/celebrate_la_befana_at_christmas_the_holidays_need_a_wine_drinking_witch.html

 

Italy: La Befana, the original Good Witch http://www.superiorconcept.org/Firstnight/italia.htm

 

La Befana and Epiphany
January 6 Events
By Martha Bakerjian

http://goitaly.about.com/od/festivalsandevents/a/epiphany.htm

 

The Befana tradition – ItalyHeritage

http://www.italyheritage.com/traditions/christmas/befana.htm

 

La Befana – an Italian Christmas tradition – Italian-Link.com

http://www.italian-link.com/pages/labefana.shtml

 

Images

 

“Santa Claus – A Man of Many Faces”
abouttech
By Dixie Allan. Clip Art Expert

http://webclipart.about.com/od/Chirstmas/ss/Santa-Claus-A-Man-Of-Many-Faces.htm#step10

 

“The Three Wise Men”
Clipart Pal

http://www.clipartpal.com/clipart_pd/holiday/christmas/religiouschristmas_10889.html

 

“Jolly Old St. Nick”
Wikimedia Commons
Artist unknown-Public Domain

http://www.christmas-graphics.com/graphics/santa/sclaus-4.html

 

“Season’s Greetings from NARA”
Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board. (01/1942 – 11/03/1945)
Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons

http://tinyurl.com/huk4uyvThis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “22d-Growing up Italian-American: La Befana? Who is that?

  1. I have never heard of La Befana but was very interested to hear. Maybe it was the association with Halloweeen that stopped your grandparents passing on the tradition?
    There’s no equivalent here in the Uk that I’ve heard of. As a child I used to leave out a mince pie & a glass of sherry for Father Christmas and a carrot for the reindeer. They were always gone in the morning……

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    • Hi Norma, I think so. I think the immigrants were very sensitive to these things and how others perceived them. I love that you thought of the reindeer when Santa came to visit.

      As a third generation American there are parts of the entire holiday season in December to January that I’m more comfortable with even though they come from other cultures. I think the African-American festival of Kwanzaa is very beautiful for the spiritual and moral values it celebrates.

      It’s just the combination in my own mind of Halloween imagery like an old woman on a broom with Epiphany doesn’t mix. This is all a product of my own personal associations with the imagery. If I grew up in Italy and knew La Befana as the kindly old lady in the story I think I’d find Santa Claus rather gross for being so overweight!

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  2. Emily, this is so lovely. I grew up Catholic (complete with 9 years of parochial school, nuns, mass 6x a week and all). I too, never equated Santa with the 3 wise men, largely because of this. Santa was a popular phenomena separate from religion. Interesting observation about the illustrations. They did bring back early memories of prayer books, “holy cards,” missals and Christmas cards of a bygone era! The drawing was as rich as the sentiment surrounding them. Remember when there were “special” stamps issued by the post office for sending (unsealed) Christmas cards at a lower rate? We got so many, we could encircle our living room circumference with all the cards we received. Now we only get a scant dozen.

    Last year, my projects for my main blog became terribly ambitious. This and the addition of our Facebook page gobbled up all my time and the Diva blog suffered. Once again, my resolution is to set aside time for the dolls to “express themselves” on their own blog. In any case, I wish you and your family all the best health, good tidings and happiness in the year to come.

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    • April, I understand very well what you experienced in 2015. My online presence decreased due to poor time management. I had so many things that HAD to be done. I thought I could do everything including a very busy social life. What happened is the blogs, research, writing, sewing all dried up. In terms of priorities my own dolly blog, The Enchanted Dress Shop, was near extinction. People who do not engage in an online presence do not understand the highly charged and emotional content of these activities. My maternal Uncle is helping me with Mom’s family history which is the reason why that blog alone had a high output and lively interaction in 2015. Since I’m self-employed there are many things behind the scenes that must be attended to like monthly expese reports, shredding of papers after scanning them to the computer and so on. In reprioritizing I found that after my job, my creative work was the next priority. April, like you I find it a spiritual pursuit. Whether it’s picture taking, blogging, or crafting a project there is a very rejuvenating effect to this. I feel that without the creative output I am not living.

      This post came to me after weeks of thinking about the subject. I had a lovely afternoon to nap, rest and eat correctly. It was done in about 30 minutes because I felt better than I had in the past. I am still recovering from a flare-up of tendonitis and have mild discomfort. I’m seeing progress, though, since I accepted the fact that I have to change my approach and be more home centered. Physical therapy, focus on positive outcomes and quiet time go a long way to getting better.

      I share some of your memories of Christmas past. I want to keep them alive which is why my Uncle and I will be sharing more family stories and local history in the postings once we get to the second and third generation of our family in America. I’m old school in many ways. I still send paper greeting cards. I’ve saved as many from the past as I can. The ones we get from our nearest and dearest are tangible links to the past. Ecards are cute and pleasant but they are no substitute to something you can touch, hold and look at as you remember someone in the quiet hours of the night.

      Happy New Year to you and yours! I will work towards better contact on and off-line. Quality is more important than quantity.

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      • Emily, you touched on some real points about blogging. When I started out nearly 3 years ago, I had no clue as to all that goes into producing one that will actually be read and followed. In the beginning I posted about things I already knew. Easy! But with time, I discovered my real competition was myself and it doesn’t work to spit out the same old stuff. I’ve had to make a real commitment to this craft and in doing so, I’ve discovered all of the peripheral elements that go into making the blog a success….presence on other social media platforms and that, too, eats up my “extra” time. Fortunately I have few professional commitments these days so all of this keeps me busy and engaged as I look after my dad. But as you said, there is a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes with building something from scratch that no only looks good but engages other people with similar interests. And yes, maintaining a certain quality is much more important than quality.
        P.S. Thank you for reminding me the name of your dolly blog.

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      • I’m a bad dolly Mama, April. My girls at the Enchanted Dress Shop told me they’re going to call it The Faded Memory. I have made a promise to do one new pattern and hand sewn dress this year. I will be posting progress shots to keep it interesting. Loved your New Year’s post at the Diva blog.

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