Where are the great female figures in Christmas lore? The Italians have one. Last year, Betsy Woodruff explained why La Befana is worth celebrating. The article is reprinted below:
Let’s be frank: Santa Claus is overexposed. Even before Thanksgiving, Americans are bombarded with Santa songs, movies, and commercials, most of which seem to invoke the nonexistent children’s character to persuade adults to buy new motor vehicles.
There’s nothing wrong with St. Nick, per se. But it’s all a bit much, and we can do better. Krampus—Santa’s horrifying evil counterpart who beats bad children and then drags them to hell—has had his moment this December. He’s gotten press from a host of outlets, including Vox, the New York Times, and the Daily Beast, indicating he has a fairly effective PR team. And if you’re looking to talk about someone else during December, you could do a lot worse than the chained horned demon.
But Krampus is a flawed addition to the Christmas cast of characters, in part because he’s genuinely horrifying, and (more significantly) because he doesn’t bring the holiday any much-needed diversity. The Christmas pantheon is basically one big bro-fest. Beside the Virgin Mary—who does more than her share for women by actually bringing Jesus into the world, for goodness sake—there aren’t really any interesting, imaginative women in the Christmas narrative. Sure, you’ve got Mrs. Claus, but she has a bit part. It’s 2014, and the holidays could use some more women.
Enter La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. A rough summary of her story goes this way: According to Southern Italian folklore, La Befana is an old woman—her witch status, to be fair, is disputed—whose home the Magi swung by on their way to visit Baby Jesus (here’s a short write-up from ItalyHeritage.com). The Three Kings apparently asked her for directions and stayed over at her house for the night. The next morning, they invited her to come along on their journey, but she declined, saying she had too much housework to do. After they left, though, she changed her mind, and decided to try to join them in their search. But it was too late. She couldn’t find them, and she never found her way to baby Jesus.
So now La Befana flies her broom around on the night before the Jan. 6 Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the Magi’s meeting with baby Jesus. She leaves candies and small toys in good children’s shoes or stockings, and coal in bad ones’. The general consensus on the Internet seems to be that her name is an abbreviation or regional variation of the word epiphany. Families often leave her a glass of wine and a plate of sausage and broccoli (see Italian-Link), which sounds vastly superior to Santa’s typical fare.
Like all folktales, Befana’s has many variations. Some are tragic: One iteration, per Brickthology, has King Herod’s soldiers kill her son. Delusional with grief, she leaves her home to search for him. Instead, she finds baby Jesus and gives him all her son’s belongings. He blesses her, and now she travels the world blessing good children and punishing bad ones. In another version, her children die of plague, so she gives their old things to baby Jesus.
And, as with many Christian traditions, La Befana’s likely has pagan roots, which the site Liberated Thinking touches on here. Some argue she is a Christian version of the ancient Roman goddess of the new year, Strenua. And she’s not just Italian; in a similar Russian folk tale, an old woman who declines traveling with the Magi and then follows them afterward is dubbed Babushka.
Befana may be having a bit of a renaissance. Isabella Centofani Alexander, who illustrated the children’s book The Night of La Befana and runs ItalianChildrensMarket.com, said she’s seen a marked uptick in demand for storybooks about Befana and dolls based on her.
“People want to feel connected to a culture,” she said. “The world is so globalized now, so people want to have a connection to their roots.”
A friend of mine, Mia Di Stefano, who worked as an Italian-English translator and slang specialist for WordReference, grew up celebrating Befana with relatives from Italy. She said she thinks more families—Italian or otherwise—ought to incorporate her story into their Christmas celebrations.
“Throughout history, women have achieved power through their wisdom and through mysticism,” she emailed. “La Befana is the perfect encapsulation of that.”
If you like the idea of eating sausage and drinking wine while celebrating a woman who flies around on a broom and makes her own decisions—in other words, if you’ve ever thought “Christmas is great but it could use a witch or two”—then skip Krampus and make room for Befana.