Lady Befana

The Italian Witch Santa

Lady Befana, the Italian Witch Santa¬† was a folkloric myth of a old woman who would travel around the countryside delivering gifts to children throughout Italy. It is believed that once long ago a woman named Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men just before the birth of Jesus. They asked her for directions to where he lay as they had seen his star in the sky, but she replied she didn’t know and offered them shelter for then night. Being the village’s best housekeeper and host, she was invited to go with the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus the next day – but she declined as she was too busy with cleaning chores. Just after they left, she had a change of heart and tried to find them unsuccessfully. It is believed that to this day she has been searching for the child and in her travels, leaves all the good kids toys, fruit, or candy and coal, garlic, or onions for the bad kids. It is perceived in Italy very much like most of the world believes in Santa Clause. However while modern Pagans throughout the world incorporate her into visiting their households on the Winter Solstice or Yule, according to Italian folklore – she’d visit the Italian folk around January 5th, during Epiphany Eve. It is theorized that she was named after the Italian “La Festa dell’Epifania” (Epiphany) Feast Day as a manifestation of the divinity. Folklorists suggest that she may be related to the Roman Goddess Strenia, who was often depicted as presiding over the New Year’s eve gifts which were called “Strenae”. Others have suggested her name being a mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaneia”, or after Bastrina, gifts associated with the Goddess Strina. Many times her gifts are depicted as being figs, dates, and honey – which were also commonly depicted or associated with Befana. She was depicted often being noisy, riotous, and licentious. She would visit the children and filling their socks hung at the chimneys with care with candy, figs, dates, or honey if the children had been good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they were bad – just as was similarly depicted with Santa and the filling of his stockings. Sometimes it has been rumored that she’d sweep or housekeep a house before leaving if it was left messy. Instead of a glass a milk like children leave for Santa, they would leave her a glass wine and a plate with a few morsels of food. She is often depicted as a smiling happy soot covered old lady with a black shawl draped over her shoulders and riding a broomstick through the air, sometimes swooping down into the chimneys carrying a hamper filled with gifts and candy. She is supposedly “fairy” cloaked and not to be seen. If children do spy her, they will receive a thump from her broomstick as she doesn’t want to be seen. She is however an Italian national icon. Her figure is associated with the Papal States during Epiphany in the regions of Umbria, Lazio, and Marche with her residing in Urbania. Numerous festivals take place during this time of year celebrating the holiday with Befana images swinging from the main tower of the city center. One such festival, called the Feast of the Befana is held in the Piazza Navona in Rome every year. The National Befana festival is held in Urbania every year between January 2nd and 6th.

Another myth about her origin was that she was an ordinary woman with child whose death maddened her with grief. Once she learned about baby Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusionally thinking he was her son. As she met him, she showered him with gifts. This pleased Baby Jesus and his gift to her in return was that she would be mother to every child in Italy. A Befana Choir takes place every Winter Solstice at the Kensington Market’s Festival of Lights parade in Toronto, Canada.

As gifts were commonly exchanged in honor of Ianus and Strenia during Roman times to celebrate the beginning of the year. This is a tradition that is believed to have influenced the Befana or Strenae myth. Other Pagan customs surround her legend including the stockings by the chimney, the Yule Tree, New Years traditions, and burning of a old lady character to represent the old year just passed in order to give space for the new one. Many European countries burn a puppet of a old lady at the beginning of the year with Celtic origins. There are also potential origins of her traced to Neolithic beliefs and practices, as well as sharing similarities to Perchta in Pre-Christian Alpine traditions. Some Saturnalia legends claim the Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on Capitoline Hill to have their augers read by Lady Befana, depicted as an old woman reading the augers. During Epiphany, a Pagan festival celebrating the Ancestors was often held and it is also theorized the origin of the Befanotti (representing the ancestors) going from home to home singing the “Pasquella” with the Befana coming down the chimneys took place. She is first found mentioned in classic literature in a poem by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.

Bibliography:


  • Abruzzo 2000:
    2011 “Christmas in Abruzzo: The Befana”. Website referenced December 2011. http://www.abruzzo2000.com/abruzzo/traditions/christmas/befana.htm.
  • Bonvincini, Alice

    2011 “The Befana Comes by Night …”; Italian American Digital Project: http://www.i-italy.org/16375/befana-comes-night/.
  • Calandra, John D.
    2009 “The Legend of La Befana”. Italian American Institute. http://qcpages.qc.edu/calandra/community/commbefa.html.
  • Giglio, Michael
    2008 “Taking Flight with Italy’s Holiday Witch”. Speigel Online: www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,596060,00.html.
  • Illes, Judika
    2009 The Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses. ISBN: 9780061350245.
  • Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
    2011 – Website referenced. en.wikipedia.org.

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