La Befana the Christmas Witch!
In Italy, Gifts are given on the Epiphany, l'epifania, on January 6th. The term Epiphany comes from ancient Greek and means “manifestation" or “appearance of a supernatural being or of a divinity”, or “a moment of revelation”.
This is the day the Three Kings allegedly arrived in Bethlaham bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It's traditional for children to receive gifts and a colorful long stocking full of sweets if they’ve been good, or filled with coal which is made of black sugar, if they’ve been bad.
But it isn't Santa Claus who comes down the chimney...it's the benevolent Witch, Le Befana, who comes riding a flying broomstick carrying a magical self-replenishing sack full of goodies. She leaves her gifts on Twelfth Night of Christmas, or the Eve of the Epiphany! It was not until after World War II that Christmas trees and Santa Claus entered the Italian Christmas lore. Nowadays, 90% of Italians also believe in Santa Claus or Father Christmas, Babbo Natale.
Briefly, the legend has it that the Three Magi followed the North Star, in search of the Divine Child. They grew very tired on their journey and decided to stop at the tiny cottage of an old witch.
When they knocked on the door, an old woman holding a broom opened peeked out to see who was there. Three elaborately dressed Kings who were in need of directions to find the Christ child stood before her.
The old woman was unaware of the Divine Child these three wise men were looking for, so she could not point them in the right direction. But she kindly offered food and shelter for the night.
Three Kings rested and prepared to leave first thing in the morning. That night they told her about the Prophesy of the Divine Child. Prior to the three men leaving they asked the old woman to join them on their journey. She declined because she was so old and feeble, and had too much work to do in preparation for the long Winter ahead.
After they left she felt as though she had made a mistake and decided to go and catch up with them. She packed up her sack full of handmade gifts and food for the Divine Child. She hopped on her broomstick and tried to catch up with the Three Wise Men, but she could not find them.
Thinking of the opportunity she had missed, the old woman stopped at every home in hopes of finding the Christ Child. She left gifts to every child she found, just in case was baby Jesus. So each year on the eve of the Epiphany she sets out again, in search of the Divine Child...leaving gifts along the way to all the good little girls and boys in hopes of finding the Divine Child.
The Befana (Epifania) festival is a national holiday in Italy, and Italian children only go back to school from their Christmas holidays on January 7th. The holiday was suppressed by law in 1977, but had to be reintroduced by popular demand in 1985.
To an outsider, the Befana festival might seem to be more like Halloween! Groups of adults dressed up as La Befana , and children go knocking from door to door singing rhymes and asking for gifts of sweets.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Posted by Judith at 10:07 AM