Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Better be good this Christmas....by Saviour Pirotta

I got an email from a young reader in Umbria the other day, asking me if I knew any stories about La Befana. 

La Befana taking a well-deserved rest
La Befana is the Italian equivalent of Father Christmas, often referred to as Father Christmas' wife.  Usually depicted as a hook-nosed octogenarian, she flies through the air on her broomstick.  Her face and clothes are black with soot because, like Santa, she comes down the chimney.  She brings with her a sack full of toys and treats for well-behaved children but leaves lumps of coal, onions or garlic for the naughty ones.  Families leave her a small glass of prosecco and some tasty local delicacy as a thank you for her gifts.  If she has the time, she might use her broom to sweep the floor, an act of kindness often pointed out to kids as proof that she has visited.

The origin of the Befana tradition is not clear.  According  to Victorian writers she  is derived from the ancient Roman goddess Strina. Her festival was celebrated on the first of January with an exchange of gifts.  Presents in both Italy and nearby Malta where children are given money on New Year's day, are still called Strina  to this very day.

There are two folk legends explaining the origin of the Befana, one of them very similar to the Russian Babushka story.   The most popular depicts her as a house-proud spinster living on the road to Bethlehem at the time when Jesus was born. The three wise men call on her to ask for shelter and invite her to go along with them in search of the newly-born Christ. She accepts but, unable to leave until she has tidied the house, she gets left behind.  By the time she takes the road, bearing toys for Jesus, it is too late.  The magi, and the Holy Family, have left Bethlehem.  La Befana is still searching for Jesus to this very day,  giving presents to every child she meets in case he is the Christ.

A second, lesser known story, tells of a mother mourning a long-dead baby.  The magi call on her but
Befana doll on sale in Venice
she turns them away.  At night, she sees the star of Bethlehem shining in the sky and has a change of heart.  She follows it and finds the new-born Jesus in a stable.  Delighted by her gifts of bread and woollen blanket, the Christ-child makes her the mother of all Italian children and entrusts her with the task of handing out Christmas gifts every year.

The tradition of La Befana is still strong in Italy to this very day and has even been exported to other countries where there are huge Italian immigrant communities. Mother Christmas appears in parades, at markets and prize-giving ceremonies. Piazza Navona in Rome hosts an annual market selling toys and sweets shaped like lumps of charcoal.  Children in Rome are told that the Befana takes off from one of the windows in the piazza on the 6th of January.  The old lady features in poems, sonnets, stories and even in Ottorino Resphigi's music. The fourth movement in his Feste Romane is entitled La Befana. The old woman who started out as a  humble housekeeper on the outskirts of Bethlehem today enjoys worldwide celebrity status.

What would you like Befana to bring you this year?  Leave your wishes in the comment box and I'll see if I can have a word with her.

A warning to the wicked!


Sue Bursztynski said...

I had heard of the first version you mention about Befana, but not the second. Very sweet! For my Befana gift, I'd like her to drop off some toys for children in the Philippines who have lost their homes - toys can be a comfort and I'm sure Befana would be delighted to help out.

Joan Lennon said...

I didn't know about her - such sad stories! Thanks for posting!

Lily said...

Hurrah - Mother Christmas!

Penny Dolan said...

A book for every child, a safe place to read it and someone to share it with or read it to them.

Love both these stories, Saviour, and I hadn't heard the second either. That handy broom is an interesting thing to go travelling with. I might quite like a bit of cleaning help overnight at Christmas, too.

Saviour Pirotta said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. No lump of coal in your shoe this Christmas!