Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Befana, Italy's Christmas Witch

While much of the world waits for jolly St. Nick to come down the chimney on Christmas, bearing gifts and filling stockings, in Italy, a very different figure comes around for the holidays--a witch.

Known as "Befana," the witch has long been a part of Italian folklore and tradition.  She is portrayed as an old woman riding a broom.  Like Santa Claus, Befana enters homes through the chimney causing the shawl that she wears to stay covered in soot.  Also like St. Nick, she carries around a bag filled with toys, candy and gifts to distribute to well behaved children.  Misbehaved children receive coal or sticks.

There are some differences between Claus and the witch though.  Befana arrives on the eve of the feast of Epiphany (January 6th), and many believe that her name is actually derived from the Feast itself. 
Befana is also said to sweep the room clean when she visits, a symbolic gesture to clear all the problems of the previous year.

Most of the legends of Befana connect her in some way to the Biblical magi and their trek to find the Christ child.  In some versions, the old witch offers the travelers shelter for the night.  In other versions, they simply show up at her door seeking the child.  Ultimately, the tales all seem to link her somehow to the birth of Jesus with the result being that she ends up caring for all children and the goodness they have within.

A national festival of Befana is held in Urbania each year and hundreds of women dress up as Befana to mingle among the crowds.  Each year, children around Italy write letters to the witch to ask for special gifts and the post office in Urbania even has a mailbox reserved for her.

In Rome, it's believed that Befana will show herself in a window of Piazza Navona on January 6th at midnight, but outside of the brief look she allows in the Piazza window, it's not wise to try to catch a glimpse of Befana without permission.  If you do, she'll give you a good whack with her broomstick as she doesn't like to be seen going about her business.

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