Italian Christmas Witch: Befana

I only learned of Befana a few years ago while doing a story on Christmas in Rome.     I can’t remember ever hearing of Befana growing up in Italian American New Jersey.

But we did have the fear that if we were bad we would receive coal in our stockings………..and my cousin Gary did get coal one year!

So I was thrilled when a  face book contact posted the following story.  It explains who Befana is and  her legend.   With the posters permission:    La Befana

The xmas market in Rome sells Befana dolls

Stephen Mark Ulissi

  In Italian folklore Befana is portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick.  She visits children all over the world on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with a sweet (dolce) if they have behaved well (buona figura) or good piece of onion if they have been bad (brutta figura).  Befana enters each house through the chimney and, being a good housekeeper, uses her broom to sweep up a bit before she leaves.  Many of the past year’s problems are swept away during this cleaning.  Children who are wise (furbi) leave a glass of wine (vino) and a bite to eat (it is said she loves cardoons) to nibble on just to make sure she does not fly over without stopping in.

  Befana’s origins date to the time when she was approached by the biblical Magi (Three Wise Men) soon after the birth of the Infant Jesus.  They had become lost when, after seeing His star in the sky, they set out to bring gifts to the Savior.  The Befana didn’t know the exact location but pointed them towards Bethlehem and gave them a place to sleep in her tidy house.  Just prior to departing, the Magi asked her to accompany them on the journey to find the baby Jesus.  But Befana chose to stay behind as it had been a very bad year and many problems needed to be swept away.  Soon after their departure Befana had a change of heart and went out to catch up with the Magi.  Her efforts were in vain and, on the 6th of January, the Epiphany took place in her absence.  To this day Befana searches the world over for the Our Lord.  During her endless wandering she stops along the way to leave treats for all good children to enjoy.

  In recognition of the Befana Italian parents and grandparents (nonni) give presents and chant a rhyme to their young loved ones on Epiphany day.  Here are the Abruzzo dialect, Italian and English versions:     

La  Befan Ve’ la nott
Te’ li scarp tutt rott
Lu cappell a la roman
Viv viv viv la Befan !
La Befana viene di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col cappello alla romana
Viva, Viva, Viva la Befana!
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
Wearing a hat in the Roman style
Long live the Befana!

  2014 years after Jesus’ birth, Befana had another adventure.  This time she was wise and graceful enough to put aside her sweeping chores so as to assist a hapless traveler in her time of need.

La Magia della Befana  (The Befana’s Magic)

  There once was a lovely Principessa (princess) who was fortunate enough to have been born on the eastern slopes of the Grand Sasso mountain in Italy’s Abruzzo region.  Both her parents, the king and the queen of the land, dearly loved their bright and winsome daughter.  Unfortunately, as time passed the parents’ love for each other faded and they began to squabble.  Principessa was very worried about these arguments and at times thought she was the blame for her parents’ discontent.  Finally, after each of them had spent a knightly sum in gold ducats to the royal barristers, the king and queen reached a compromise.  Their Abruzzo domain would be divided into two parts. The chief barrister told them to do their best to remain friends. They did their best but this was hard and they would never live together again.  As expected, Principessa was at first very sad but with time she accepted the decision of her parents who, after all, were the king and queen.  She loved both of them and wanted to spend time with each so she traveled back a forth between the two domains under the supervision of Fata Buona (good fairy).  This, too, was difficult because the rules of the land differed in the two domains.  For example, when meeting heads of state with her father, the king, a curtsy would do but her mother, the queen, insisted that nothing less than a bow would suffice.  She also had the habit of leaving her favorite tiara in her father’s castle and Principessa was most annoyed at having to borrow one from a lady-in-waiting at her parents’ domains.
  One day very near the Christmas Holidays, while traveling between the two domains, Principessa became distracted and fell into a rather deep and dark hole.  Fata Buona was quite dismayed as she knew the king and queen would be most angry.  She had rather long arms so she decided to lie down next to the hole and reach down as far as she was able.  Fata Buona waved her hand into the hole every which way and began shouting, “Out…out….come out of there just this minute!”  From below she heard a feint voice that she recognized.  But the commotion did nothing but scare Principessa who by nature was a timid soul and, after all, had little practice in climbing out of holes.  Fata Buona decided that she needed help and began screaming, “AIUTO! (Help!) as loudly as possible.  As luck would have it, Befana was flying overhead.  Long ago Befana decided that she would never again put off taking the right action so she headed down on her broom for a look.
  After a perfect broomstick landing, the first thing Befana did was to tell herself to stop, look, take a deep breath and think.  This helped a good deal.  Soft phrases then flowed from her lips, just loud enough to be heard by the others present.  Fata Buona listened carefully to the words.  “In order to solve this problem actions will speak louder than words, much louder than accusations.  Go henceforth in the spirit of love.”  Befana continued, “Fata Buona, lie down once more next to the hole.  You may soil your dress but all will be well in the end.  Remain as calm as the owl perched high above on a cold winter’s night.  Do not wave your arm wildly about.  Success can be had only by reaching down purposefully to the exact location where Principessa now finds herself.  Not an inch lower nor higher.  The hole is dark and Principessa has fallen in a frightful and unfamiliar place.  Moreover, you have not the strength to lift the weight of Principessa out of the hole.  She must hold out her hand to you and use her legs to step higher and higher along the jagged sides of the crevice.  Principessa is quite frightened and has not the confidence that she can perform this feat. At first she may be clumsy and hesitant causing Principessa to believe that she has not this power.  But with practice her confidence will surely grow.  As you motion for her to grab your hand tell her you are confident she can do this.  Because she can see you at the top of the hole, you might show her how you climb and perhaps have her practice a climbing a maneuver that in the past has been helpful to you when you have fallen.”  Just for good measure, before departing the wise Befana used her broom to sweep some leaves away from the hole, reached into her cape and handed Fata Buona a small torch to light the way.
  Fata Buona did her best to follow these instructions.  With some effort, the two worked together until Pincipessa was once again free to continue her journey.
  Upon learning what had happened to their daughter, the king and queen emptied their larders for a grand feast.  The subjects of both their domains attended and much vino was consumed.  Luckily, none had the misfortune to fall into a hole.  The king and queen sat at opposite ends of a large table as they wanted to avoid any further squabbles that might mar the joyous occasion. Their daughter was pleased that both were present to share her joy.  Many years later the domains were reunited under Principessa’s rule.  Befana’s words stayed with her forever, “When confronting difficult problems one must try one’s best, take action, and reach out a hand to others if the hole is a deep one.  Dio volente (with God’s grace), you will succeed.”

Published by Lee Laurino

A traveler not a tourist, searching for experiences not in travel books. Solo traveler who travels as long and far as possible sharing photos of the people and places I discover

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