Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas in Italy: Befana the Witch

In Italy they have Santa Claus - his name is Babo Natale - but, unlike most of the rest of the world, he is not the one who brings gifts to the children on Christmas. In Italy, children receive their gifts on the day of the Epiphany which is the day that the 3 Wise Men visited Jesus in the manger, celebrated on January 6th (although many Italians do the normal gifts-on-Christmas day thing). And the person who brings the gifts to the Italian children is a Witch named La Befana. Rather than try to describe La Befana in my own words, here's a description I pulled off some random website:

The Befana is a Christmas witch that comes 12 days after Christmas on January 6. January 6 is Epiphany and is a celebration of the visit by the three wise men to the baby Jesus. La Befana is derived from Epifania, the Italian for Epiphany.

In the distant past the people of Italy thought La Befana was evil. They rang clay bells and made noise to keep her away. Now she is viewed as a gentle spirit that will give gifts to the children of Italy.

According to the Italian legend, La Befana lived on the road the three wise men took on their journey to visit the baby Jesus. The three wise men on camels loaded down with gifts, approached La Befana’s house as she was busy working. They stopped to ask directions to Bethlehem and to ask if she could provide them with food and shelter for the night to see if she might join them on their journey. La Befana was too busy to talk to the wise men. Later she changed her mind and decided she should have gone with the wise men.

La Befana gathered up some gifts and set off in search of the Christ Child. Like the three wise men she followed the bright star shining in the sky. She was not able to find the stable where the Christ Child lay.

Befana did not give up and to this day is still looking in every home for the Christ Child. She flies on her broom to each house that is home to a child. La Befana leaves gifts in every house she visits in case one of them happens to be the Christ Child. If a child is particularly naughty she is said to leave a lump of coal in their house.

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