Oh my gosh you guys, it is almost Christmas! In nearly every part of the world Santa Claus – or St. Nick or Father Christmas or some other jolly man – brings presents. Then there are some parts of the world (called the Netherlands) where he is some sort of cruel slave driver, and that is why we have trend pieces and Django Unchained. Maybe? On Christmas Day I’m probably going to see Les Mis.
However, in some parts of Italy, most notably Marche, Umbria and Lazio, there is a female version of Santa Claus named La Befana. Do you know why she is better than Santa Claus?
Oh, I am here to tell you!
Okay, what do you leave for Santa Claus? Milk and cookies.
What do you leave for La Befana? Wine and “the regional specialty.”
So while Santa Claus is gumming 2% milk and Oreos with his old man teeth, La Befana is savoring a nice Pinot Noir and some tartufo.
I know which one I’d like to be.
Also, there is no part of the world – none – where La Befana is known to employ slaves. She doesn’t even have reindeer. She’s just a fast walker. Because the wine is heart healthy.
Incidentally – how did you find out that Santa Claus was not real? Don’t say “by reading this article, Jennifer” because . . . Actually, I like to believe TheGloss has a certain precocious baby readership, so, good work getting your tiny fingers to land on the correct keys, kiddo. I’ll try to be more respectful of your fist sized baby brain going forward.
I found out when I was at some Christmas party with my mother. She was talking to an (admittedly insensitive) friend who leaned down to little me and said, “What do you want Santa to give you?” and I listed, I don’t know, twenty items, probably a great many of them dolls that looked like monsters. And then, when I had finished my litany, the woman stood up and said to my mother, “I think one of the worst days in childhood is when you find out there is no Santa Claus.”
Yeah lady, it was.
But that is neither here nor there.
The fact is, yes, Gloss readers, La Befana is real.
She is our first living Shelved Doll.
Would you like to know what she looks like? Would you like to see a photograph of her?
Don’t say her face is made out of plastic; that is just Botox. That is La Befana being a lady who is concerned about her general appearance.
Apparently, in Venice, on January 6th, men dress as La Befana and race in boats on the Grand Canal.
You know, while one of my favorite cities, Venice doesn’t even make sense. Everything there is sort of wonderfully weird, which was well detailed by Jeanette Winterson in The Passion and Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities, either one of which, or both, would make a good last minute Chistmas gift for the traveler in your family. If I were even halfway decent at learning foreign languages, and I could stand the idea of living anyplace but New York, I’d move to Venice in a minute.
There are men cross-dressing as a holiday crone who rides around on a broomstick while racing boats, there.
But why does such an elegant and shiny woman have a broom you might ask?
Because after La Befana brings the presents, she cleans up the house.
Have you ever thought about the amount of soot Santa Claus (not real) would theoretically track into a house after coming down a chimney? A lot. That’s how much. A lot. That’s never even accounted for, is it?
Incidentally, La Befana (real) also comes down the chimney sometimes.
If there is no chimney, La Befana finds another way inside, usually via the front door.
So La Befana is completely sane and rational. Someone who loves wine, tartufo and giving, and cleaning, and politely entering through the front door.
She is a terrific housekeeper because she evolved from the Roman goddess Strenua or Strenia, who was the goddess not only of the New Year, but also purification, and well-being. Her presence was supposed to make those around her vigorous and strong, which . . . goes along with being a good housekeeper?
I’ll buy it.
Also, fun fact, the ancient Romans also gave one another presents to celebrate the New Year! According to Symmachus’ Epistula the traditional holiday exchange originated because:
From almost the beginning of Mars’ city the custom of New Year’s gifts (strenae) prevailed on account of the precedent of King Tatius who was the first to reckon the holy branches (verbenae) of a fertile tree (arbor felix) in Strenia’s grove as the auspicious signs of the new year.
I have absolutely no idea – none – what fertile tree branches have to do with giving gifts, except, well, Christmas trees, so that actually makes a ton of sense. So that explains Christmas trees. That does not explain how King Tatius saw the connection, but I am going to suggest “lead poisoning.”
Hahaha, no, kidding, Tatius wasn’t one of the bad emperors.
Back to La Befana . . . Despite all her fine attributes, unfortunately, she also has a terrible sense of direction. This is the story of how this wonderful but directionally challenged lady became La Befana, by modern traditions that have nothing to do with tree branches.
This is the legend according to John D. Calandra, of the Italian American Institute:
La Befana is an old woman who lives in a house in the hills of Italy. She once had a husband and child, but now lives alone. Befana spends her days sweeping and baking. One night, Befana notices a bright light in the sky; she thinks nothing of it and goes back to her work of sweeping and baking. Later, a glorious caravan led by Three Wise Men stop and ask Befana for directions to Bethlehem and invite Befana to join them in their search for the Christ Child. But Befana is too busy and knows nothing of this far-away place nor the birth of a special baby. After the caravan disappears over the hills, Befana thought of how much she missed her child who sadly died at a very young age. She changes her mind and wants to visit this special child, because she loves children very much. So she places some baked goods and gifts for the child in a sack, takes her broom to help the new mother clean and races out after the caravan in search of the Baby Jesus. Befana soon is lost. And just as she tired, angels appeared from the bright light, the magic star, in the sky to give flight to Befana on her broom – after all this was a night of miracles. She searched and searched for the Baby Jesus. Befana still searches, even today, even after all these centuries. And so, every year on the eve of the Epiphany, whenever Befana comes to a house where there is a child, she drops in to see if it might be the child she seeks. It never is, but Befana leaves a gift anyway. For Befana has come to realize, over the years, that her searching is not vain, that in a way the Christ Child can be found in all children.
La Befana, like my Nana, was famous for spending her days in the kitchen, cooking and sweeping. On the first Christmas, the Magi stopped by her house, asking directions to Bethlehem. She made them dinner and they told her, “We’re going to see the Christ child, want to come along?” “Impossible,” she replied. “There’s all these dishes to wash and the kitchen to sweep!” So the kings went on their way. Then, as the old woman was sweeping, it hit her: Did those guys say they were going to see Jesus?
So, basically, according to this legend, La Befana is a witch who flies around looking for Jesus on her broom. I like this version more than the ancient Roman version.
Very sad about her child, though! There’s a lot of pathos in this story. Also, directions are really hard. And motivating yourself to leave your house when it is cold and you have just finished eating is also really hard.
Have you noticed we don’t know her full name, though, in much the same way we do not know Santa’s full name?
Do you want to know the best thing about La Befana though?
Instead of leaving children coal, she leaves them blackened candy made out of caramel and . . . I genuinely don’t know, brownies? It can be any dark brown substance, so I guess it could also be dark chocolate.
It’s supposed to represent coal.
I think it’s brownies.
Everyone receives candy, because it’s okay for all children to be bad some of the time.
This is pretty much the best, and probably the healthiest, message you could give children. Namely, that it’s okay not to be perfect.
Also, sometimes La Befana does not want to put her presents in the stocking! Sometimes she takes shoes or socks and hides them and the presents around the house.
Why? Because La Befana has the freedom to be the kind of woman she wants to be, and that kind of woman is part Easter Bunny. Alternatively, because she is brave.
Ultimately, I just like the idea of La Befana because I feel she is somehow less aggressive than Santa Claus. I don’t feel she is competing to show people how fast and cool she is on her sleigh. She is just a nice lady who lost her own child (and, God, this is especially heart-wrenching right now, at this season) and who wants to make people happy. And clean houses. I think it’s all summed up quite charmingly by this nursery rhyme, which runs:
Sleep, child, this is the night,
the Befana comes from her cave,
and carrying candies and sweets
she goes over the rooftops.
Slowly, slowly, gently, gently
she puts her ear to the chimney
and if she hears tantrums
or someone moves, she moves on.
And to the children who are rude,
mean, or don’t want to go to bed,
and to the children who are bad,
she leaves only lumps of coal.
But if when she listens,
she hears everyone asleep
then with a skill that would surprise you
she slides into your home.
And she takes from her sack
all the goodies, and all the
beautiful things, like dolls and flowers,
and candies and cookies for the children.
Remember the bit about coal is chocolate coal. It’s okay, even if you’re not a “good child.”
And I think that’s a fairly nice message to give, especially to children who feel a lot of pressure, as I think many of us do in this day and age, to be good nearly all the time.
So. This Christmas, if you have kids, remind them of La Befana, the nice witch lady who wants to fly in on her broom to come and visit them.
Your children will freak out. That will be absolutely terrifying for them. Possibly, you should not actually do that, unless your children are the tiny Gloss readers, in which case, they have a healthily developed sense of humor.
But do leave a lump of chocolate in their stocking to remind them that sometimes, even if they are not good, they deserve a nice treat.
And remember, when you are sweeping up all the debris left under the Christmas tree, you are like a much cooler version of a saint.
And, then there is this ending to the story, which I think is particularly nice:
What the woman did not know was that she did come upon the Holy Child.
In gratitude for the woman’s generosity the Holy Child gave the woman the most wonderful blessing and gift of all.
His blessing to the woman was that for one night, and on the eve of the Epiphany for all eternity, the woman would have all the children of the world as her own.
His gift was that he gave the woman a name, he named her “La Befana”
The “Giver of Gifts”
Pictures via Wikipedia Commons