From Steve Saviello - 8 Dec 1996:
In a little village high atop a hill, in Via della Padella number 2 to be precise, an old lady, part fairy part witch, passes the entire year in company with her grotesque assistants (the Befanucci) preparing coal, making sweets and toys and darning old stockings and socks. These are all to be distributed to children on Rome's magical night of nights, between the 5th and 6th of January. This seems the longest night of all. Every child is in awe of 'La Befana' a sentiment tinged with love and fear.
Dressed in black and huge, she comes, entering the houses down the chimney to leave her presents for the children: coal for the bad boys and girlsand sweets and candies for the good ones. The children prepare a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, for everyone knows that she doesn't have many good teeth left. In origin this character is even older than Babbo Natale (Father Christmas or Santa Claus). Her festival has usurped an ancient pagan feast set celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year, chosen by ancient Eastern astronomers according to their complicated calculations.
Epiphany was, therefore, pagan in origin. Only later was the day associated with the life of Christ. So strong was the remembrance of things past that two other events in Jesus' life were calculated to have taken place on this day: His Baptism and the Wedding at Cana. Indeed until the forth century Christmas itself was celebrated on 6 January. Until the end of last century La Befana could be found in Piazza Sant'Eustachio or in Piazza dei Cappellari where the annual Christmas fair with cribs and toys took place. Then because of the fashion for crinolins and large hooped skirts the fair was moved to Piazza Navona (where it is still today) taking the place of the four hundread years old spices market which had to bemoved over to Campo de'Fiori.
From Velma - 13 Dec 1996:
Nonnavelma's Befana Story
I've been off-line for a bit so please excuse me if I'm overloading you with Befana Stories. This is how my grandmother told it to me:
The three wise men were on their journey when they were stopped by an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that they were following a star that would lead them to a newborn baby. They asked her if she would like to come along with them at which she replied that she was too busy sweeping and cleaning up to go along with such nonsense. Of course, when the realization came to her that the baby was Jesus the Redeemer her regret for not having gone along with the wise men was so great that she is spending eternity taking gifts to good children on Christmas.
My mother was born in 1903. She lived with her mother and sister in a small village in Tuscany. Her father was a "figurista" and traveled all over the world with a band of men selling figurines door-to-door and was never at home. They were very poor as were most of the people in the village. I don't remember they're ever talking about a great Christmas Eve meal. I believe their big treat before going to Midnight Mass was roasting chestnuts in the fireplace. Midnight Mass was the highlight of the holiday. They would walk in the dark along the snowy "viotoli" to the bright and warm candle-lit church and together with their friends and relatives greet the Newborn King singing carols such as "Tu Vieni da Le Stelle, O Re Del Cielo." They would then return to their humble homes and set out their wooden shoes (zocoli) and wait for the Befana to come in the night. If they were lucky there might be a sweet bright orange waiting for them in the morning. The very fortunate might find a small sliver of chocolate along with the orange. A few nuts or berries would also be a special treat. But, if you had been bad -- a piece of charcoal would greet you when you awakened.
We have four children, three in-law children, and eight grandchildren. I am at a loss as to what to buy for them at Christmas since they already have so much. Christmas Eve is at Nonna and Nonno's house and we open the gifts we are exchanging. We have a very large living room that is so filled with Christmas packages that we can hardly move. I often think of my mother who had made for herself a little straw doll which as a child she cherished. She often told me that she dreamed of having a little piece of fabric to make a little dress for the doll. How much we have to be grateful for those men and women who left their homes for far away places who deprived themselves of luxuries to save every penny, so that we would have a better life than they.
Let us remember those immigrants as we sit at our overladen tables and beautifully decorated trees at Christmas and thank il Re Del Cielo for their courage and foresight.
From Bob Russo - 13 Dec 96:
Father Carrillo, a missionary priest from Bari visited our town last week, and provided the following information:
The legend of La Befana is quaint. She is a very old and bent woman dressed all in black. Her hair is long and straggly, her nose is hooked, and she rides a broomstick. The legend tells how the custom of giving presents at Christmas began.
According to Fr. Carrillo, th legend says the three wise men visited her on their journey to Bethlehem in search of the Holy Christ Child. They asked her to accompany them but she said she was too busy. Later, after changing her mind, La Befana goes off on her own to find the Child. She continues to wander about Italy and at the Epiphany (January 6, when the Wise Men finally found the Christ Child), begins rewarding good children while cheating those who deserve punishment for their misdeeds. That's why in Italy, children receive their gifts on the Feast of the Epiphany (from La Befana) rather than from St. Nicholas(Santa Claus) on Christmas as do most of the world's children.
La Befana is the great gift-bringer in Italy. She comes quietly in inconspicuous garb. For those who are deserving, the reward is candy and gifts in their stockings. But for others, it is either a switch or a piece of coal or both. Fr. Carrilo says parents in Italy today can purchase a commercial candy that resembles pieces of coal.
Was Befana a witch or merely a pre-occupied old lady too greatly encumbered by her own household duties to assist the Wise Men? It is interesting to note, too, that St. Nicolas (accepted by many as the person we recognize as Santa Claus) is buried in Bari. He was born either in Greece or Turkey and was known for giving gifts to the needy.
Hopefully this is not a repeat of other La Befana stories already posted on PIE. I thought it interesting and consider it pretty authentic since it came from an Italian priest who is familiar with the legend, and of course, St. Nicholas who is buried in Fr. Carrillo's home town of Bari.
From Martin M. Morales
The following appeared in La Voce Italiana from Houston, Texas in 1993. I thought you would all enjoy it.
A witch on a broomstick isnt usually associated in this country with Christmas, but in Italy, all the buoni ragazzi (good kids) cant wait for old Befana to come riding in on January 6 for lEpifania (the Epifany).
The average Italian child has been busy writing to this buona strega (good witch), posting the letters in letter mailboxes attached to the presepio (nativity scene) in the piazza. Some of the furbini (little wise guys) know who really delivers the goods and make sure Babbo (Daddy) sees or even gets the letters, just for insurance.
Some believe that Befana is a version of the word Epifania, but apparantly there was also a character with a broom call Befana found on some Etruscan scratchings. The people in remote areas of the Emilia still call on her by that version of the name present or cure malocchio (evil eye). Even la scopa (the broom) is considered against evil.
In the Christian legend, she was a woman who had lost her husband and son about the same time that the Magi passed through town and asked her to join them. She was so involved in her sweeping (or purification) that she refused. When she finally decided to follow them, she could not find them, and ended up meandering forever with her broom and small sack of gifts, giving them out to kids like you (I hope.)
In the paesi (towns), groups of men will dress up like old ladies, just as soon as they get off work, to participate in the strange ritual associated with Befana. Wearing old dresses and carrying brooms, guitars and mandolins, their heads wrapped in kerchiefs and cigars in their mouths, they march up to the door of a neighbor and begin to sing:
Toca a voi, padrondi casa,
Amandarci la figiola,
Con una bell grembolata.
(The head of the household has a duty,
To send his daughter to us,
Send her alone down to us,
With an apron full of booty.)
At this point, the neighbor should open the door and offer the carolers some wine, cookies, oranges, and other little edibles. Sometimes, however, there are those who do not want to play. In these cases, the singers sing:
Su, venite, buona gente,
Son venute le Befan.
(Come on, and be good sports,
The Befane have come to you.)
If that doesnt do it, they end the chorus with:
O figliaci di puttene,
Ti pigliasse un accidente!
Oftentimes they are accompanied by their children, who carry panierini (little baskets) with which to receive the little gifts themselves. At night, their stockings will be hung to receive other little gifts, which also can appear in their panierini. The little diavoli (devils) can expect carbone e cenere (coal and ashes) and in some cases its even mixed with good stuff. Dipende (it depends.)
From Patricia J. Triaca:
Your post on La Befana seems most accurate from what I had been told about the custom from my father. He lived in Italy, Calamecca/Pistoia from the time he was 6 until he was l6. The custom must have travelled through all of Italy as Calamecca is in the Tuscan Apennines. He never remembers a Santa Claus as custom in Italy at the time he was growing up. Presents from the Befana did come on the 12th day and we always had a "Little Christmas" celebration at our house in honor of La Befana. There is also a cookie called Befana, very thin, almost like a sand tart, does anybody have the recipe? Would love to have it. Christmas trees were not a custom at all in my father's youth and I remember my paternal grandmother always being a bit shocked at people wanting to have a tree in the house! As my father was gravely ill this past summmer, his last memories were of La Befana and he kept speaking to me (in Italian) about it. So I think he was having happy memories!
From Bob Collins:
In the following, from 'Christ Stopped at Eboli' by Carlo Levi, the author, who is a prisoner of the Mussolini regime, describes a Christmas moment in the Basilicata mountain village of Gagliano:
"It was Christmas Eve and the forsaken land was piled high with snow. The wind carried the funereal tolling of the church bell, which seemed to come down from the sky. From every doorway good wishes and blessings were called down upon my head as I went by. Bands of children made their last rounds with a cupi-cupi [primitive noisemaker], and the peasants and their women took gifts to the gentry. Here the ancient custom prevails that the poor pay homage to the wealthy; their gifts are received as a matter of course and are not reciprocated. I, too, on Christmas Eve, had to accept bottles of oil and wine, eggs and baskets of dried figs; the donors were surprised that I did not treat them as well deserved tributes, but tried to evade them or at least make some simple return.
What strange sort of gentleman was I, not to countenance the reversal of the story of the Three Wise Men, but rather to welcome those who came to my house empty-handed?"
Ciao and Buon Natale
From John Monzo:
Does anyone have any stories about La Befana? I remember as a young child my Grandmother would dress up as La Befana and give out gifts to all the grandchildren.
I have not seen anything like this since my childhood and I guess as the older generation passed on so did the tradition of Befana in the U.S. I know that it is still alive and well in Italy since all of my relatives who still live there tell me about it.
I have a small Befana doll that my relatives sent back with my wife the last time she visited them in Italy and we have it out all year round in our house.
I live in South Philadelphia in a largely populated Italian neighborhood but you still do not see anything relating to Befana around the Feast of the Epiphany.
When I visited my family in Italy 4 years ago I was there during the month of January. So it was prime time for the visit of La Befana. I noticed in the candy shop windows that they sold "carbone" or black rock candy that actually looked just like pieces of coal. It was a very interesting time to be there and see all of my little cousins eagerly awaiting the visit of La Befana.
Buon Anno A Tutti
From Lou Alfano:
Egregi PIEsani: In reading the messages about La Befana and the mention of Babbo Natale, let
me offer my 2 cents' worth:
I believe that La Befana is the indiginous Italian Christmas time gift-giver, while Babbo Natale is merely an italianization of the British Father Christmas (the name translates as "Daddy (or Father) Christmas").
La Befana is a personification of the "spirit of the Epiphany" and can almost be considered a nickname for "Epifania," the proper Italian word for epiphany. This is quite fitting for a gift-giver since the Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi (or 3 Wise Men) to the infant Jesus, with their gifts of gold, frankinsence, and myrrh. The Magi were named Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar, according to tradition.
VIVA LA FAMIGLIA!
From Lorenzo Calvelli (Venice, Italy):
Did you know this ?
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla "romana"
viva viva la Befana !!
Porta cenere e carboni
ai bambini cattivoni
ai bambini belli e buoni
porta chicchi e tanti doni !
From Louis Alfano:
I did not know this poem before. Thank you for sharing it with us all, and adding to our knowledge of the legend of La Befana. A rough translation into English would be:
La Befana comes at night
In tattered shoes
Dressed in the Roman style
Long live la Befana!!
She brings cinders and coals
To the naughty children
To the good children
She brings sweets and lots of gifts.
When I was a child in Brooklyn, New York, the grandson of Italian immigrants, I was told that Santa Claus would bring me coal if I was a bad little boy. I wonder if this idea originated in the legend of La Befana, or if bad children around the world are all told that they will get coals and cinders for Christmas.
VIVA LA FAMIGLIA!
From Lorenzo Calvelli (Venice, Italy):
On Sat, 6 Jan 1996, JOHN MONZO wrote: "That is a real nice little poem. Where did you get it from?"
I've just heard it since I was a child every January 6th, along with this "ninna nanna" (lullaby):
Ninna nanna, ninna oh,
questo bimbo a chi lo do ?
Lo daro' alla Befana,
che lo tenga una settimana.
Lo daro' all'Uomo Nero,
che lo tenga un anno intero.
Lo daro' alla sua mamma,
che gli faccia far la nanna !
From Bob Fanelli:
For those of you with kids or grandchildren, there's a good picture book by Tomie dePaola, "The Legend of Old Befana", Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. dePaola is a great children's illustrator, who seems to be particularly fond of drawing old Italian ladies. He did another, very funny series about a witch, Strega Nona, as well as other Italian legends.
I enjoyed the various postings about Befana, but couldn't track down that reference to Etruscan Befana images. It may be that people have seen Etruscan drawings of a person with a broom and interpreted them to be Befana. There may be a good reason, too. The Etruscan were fond of depicting demons and such, and from what others have alluded to here, Befana was not simply a good, toy-dispensing witch. She was also seen as someone to be scared of - the bringer of ill fortune.
Here is an incantation to drive away bad luck, collected from Tuscany in the late 19th century. It may well be that these people inherited their folk religion from their ancestors who lived in the same place, the Etruscans.
"Take frankincense, both of the best and the inferior kind, also cummin seed. Have ready a new scaldino, which is kept only for this purpose. And should it happen that affairs of any kind go badly, fill the scaldino (or earthen fire-dish) with glowing coals, then take three pinches of best incense and three of the second quality, and put them all 'in fila', in a row, on the threshold of the door. Then take the rest of your incense and the cummin, and put it into the burning coal, and carry it about, and wave it over the bed and in every corner, saying:-
In nome del cielo!
Delle stelle e della luna!
Mi levo questo mal d'occhio
Per mia maggior' fortuna!
Befania! Befania! Befania!
Che mi date mal d'occhio maladetta sia
Befania! Befania! Befania!
Chi mi ha dato il maldocchio
Me lo porta via
E maggior fortuna
Mi venga in casa mia!
(In the name of heaven
And of the stars and moon,
May this trouble change
To better fortune soon!
Befania! Befania! Befania!
Should this deed be thine;
Befania! Befania! Befania!
Take it away, bring luck, I pray,
Into this house of mine!)
Then when all is consumed in the scaldino, light the little piles of incense on the threshold of the door, and go over it three times, and spit behind you over your shoulder three times, and say:-
Befania! Befania! Befania!
Chi me ha dato maldocchio!
Me lo porta via!
Befania! I say,
Since thou gavest this bad luck,
Carry it away!)
Then pass thrice backwards and forwards before the fire, spitting over the left shoulder, and repeating the same incantation."
-from "Etruscan Magic & Occult Remedies", Charles Godfrey Leland, University Books, NY, 1963. Sorry for the silly translations, but that's what was written. The author collected folk beliefs in Tuscany, and appears to have believed them himself.
Thanks to Martin Morales for that great posting about "The Befane", men dressed as Befana who go from door to door begging sweets. That's the first Italian example I've come across of mumming in Italy - a tradition I'm more familiar with in England and Ireland, and - of course - in America. Here it survives in the Mummers' Parade in Philadelphia, held on New Year's Day, and in the kids who come knocking on Halloween. Anybody have any first-hand examples or family traditions?