Since before Babbo Natale arrived on the scene, Italian children have been celebrating the annual visit of La Befana, the Christmas witch. As the story goes, an old woman was outside sweeping when the three wise men begged her for help finding their way (how they got that off course would be an interesting story in and of itself). Focused as she was on whacking dirt out of corners, she shooed them away. After they left, she noticed the star glimmering in the evening sky like an invitation, and realized where those travelers were heading. Feeling guilty for her callousness, she hopped on her broom and tried to find the wise men, in the hopes that they would agree to deliver a gift from her to the baby Jesus.
She never found them.
So La Befana turned her fruitless mission into a magical calling. Every January 5th, she flies over the grapevines and olive trees and stone aqueducts of Italy, bringing candy to children—treats she'd wanted to deliver to Jesus.
Now, there are as many variants to this story as there are Italian dialects. The darkest one tells that La Befana was mother to a child that died, and she went mad with grief. When Jesus was born, she sought him out, under the delusion that he was her child. By the time she found him and gave him gifts, he was no longer a baby, and graced La Befana with the designation of mother to every child (does this mean that every Italian child has a mother who is a crazy witch?). In any case, as a Quaker, I like the idea that in La Befana’s quest to find Jesus, she delivers treats to every child, acknowledging the Light of God in every human.
You can find images of La Befana all through Italy in the weeks leading up to the Epiphany. Unlike the jolly Christmas icons we’re used to, La Befana is not gussied up or romanticized. Rather, and not to put to fine a point on it, she’s a genuine hag. A hag with missing teeth and a dirty, torn dress clutching a broom with a maniacal grin on her face. This fits well with our experience of Italians, who are unrepentantly tied into both the glory and the darkness of life. Why bother cartooning up their hag? She’s wonderful just as she is.
So even with a face that would alarm American children raised on a steady diet of Christmas mirth and sticky sweetness, there’s a certain charm to La Befana. I love bakery windows filled with Christmas witches cavorting with cookie tins, parades of singing hags cackling along with accordion music, and especially playing the La Befana game. Again, the words of this song vary by region and family, but what we were taught is that children gather in a seated circle with a shoe behind each of them. The designated witch walks behind them while the children sing:
“La Befana vien’ di notte
Con le scarpe, tutte rotte
Porta un sacco, pien’ di doni
Da regolare ai bimbi buoni!”
Which translates to:
“La Befana comes at night
Wearing shoes, all torn up
She brings a sack, full of gifts
To give to good children!”
(Let’s just take a beat and reflect for the 314th time how much more fabulous things sound in Italian.)
Once the song is over, all the children open their eyes, and check their shoes. Whoever finds the candy that the "Befana" has hidden there leaps up and chases the witch, duck-duck-goose-style around the circle. If the "Befana" arrives at the opened spot before the tapped child, than that tapped child becomes the new "Befana".
Since our year in Italy, we’ve adopted the Christmas witch into our lives. Luckily, Gabe has yet to question her ability to travel all the way from Italy to fill his shoes with candy. Because I love celebrating La Befana. Not just for the very Italian-ness that connects me back to the curling fog and hastening twilight of January in Spello. No, you see La Befana is a reminder. A reminder to stop sweeping, look up, and listen. Magic is all around, we just need to be open to it. We just need to listen.
All that, and magically delivered chocolate before breakfast.
PS… One of our favorite Christmas books is the Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola, check it out if you are looking to infuse your holiday with a little Befana magic. And if you are hungry for more Italian Christmas celebration ideas, check out this post.