Dec 26th, by Kyl Chatwaal
While Italians love Santa Claus—or Babbo Natale as they call him—they also boastan older, more native gift-giver, La Befana. Like Santa sheslips down chimneys at night to leave gifts for dutiful and obedient children. But there the likeness ends. The Santa we know today was born in New York in the 19th century, a reimagining of the Dutch Sinter Klaas (New York, we remember, was originally a Dutch colony). With his bright red suit and corpulent stomach, Santa is a walking symbol of American prosperity and novelty.La Befana, on the other hand, has roots that go very deepin Italian and European culture. And while Santa is a “jolly old elf,”La Befanais a witch.
The name La Befana is derived from “La Festa dell’Epifania,” or “Feast of the Epiphany.” An ancient Christian feast day, it marks the occasion when the Magi, or the Three Wisemen, were said to have first seen the Christ-child (“epiphaneia” in Greek meaning “manifestation”). A twelve-day festival at winter solstice is a pre-Christian tradition, practiced by the Celts, and like many pagan traditions was adapted by the early church. The Epiphany falls on the twelfth day, long associated with mysticism and magic. (Hence, the shenanigans inWilliam Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for example, set on Epiphany Eve.)
An old Celtic tradition is still practiced in some parts of Europe where an effigy of a La Befana-like figure is burned during the winter solstice to symbolize the death of the old year. In Italy, thispagan “old woman”was Christianized as La Befana, even given a convincing backstory. She was visited by the Magion their way to Bethlehem, and not able to give them directions,offered them lodging for the night instead. They asked if she would join them, but she refused. Too much housework, she told them.
After they’d gone she realized her error, quickly grabbed a sack of presents for the baby Jesus, and a broom so she could help the young mother Mary with her own housework. She chased after the wise men but never caught up with them. Each year on Epiphany Eve she flies around the world on her broom searching for the infant Christ, but never finding him, leaves gifts for all good Christian children. Naughty ones used to receive lumps of coal, a tradition that has since morphed into the giving of carbone dolce, or “sweet coal,”rock sugar died black.
Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco have demonstrated La Befana’s deep roots in early European civilization. Her habit of coming and going through chimneys, for instance, dates to early Neolithic times when houses were not built with doors or windows, for defensive purposes, and people came and went through holes in the roof. (Of course Santa Claus shares La Befana’s preference for chimneys over doors, and it’s possible he inherited the habit from her.) Also, her flying broomcan be traced to the early Celtic belief that the spirits of ancestors inhabited the branches of trees, giving wooden stickssupernatural powers. (Magic wands were also Celtic, and based on the same principal.)
It is unclear how much of the La Befana myth has influenced the now worldwide myth of Santa Claus. For instance, the Dutch Sinter Klaas used to leave his gifts in childrens’ shoes, while La Befana stashed her treasures in their stockings. Why Santa prefers stockings over shoes may have to do with the influence of Italian immigrants in New York around the time the Santa Claus myth was being born.
Either way, La Befana remains a popular figure today in Italy, particularly in Rome, where in the Piazza Navona a market is held each year between Christmas and Epiphany, selling toys and candies and lumps ofcarbone dolce. And since her gift-giving night flight occurs on Epiphany Eve, or January 5, thankfully she won’t ever have to compete with Babbo Natale and his rather aggressive worldwide marketing machine!