On this Christmas Eve millions of children in the Italian peninsula are (like their parents and grandparents once were too) waiting eagerly for a special character to show up late at night and deliver their gifts. No. It’s not Santa Claus. It’s a creepy old lady called La Befana.
She comes stealthily in every home in the middle of the night to deliver the gifts and then speeds away in her broom; however if the children have been naughty she only leaves a piece of “coal” as a dire warning to mend their ways for the next Christmas season.
That tradition harks back to the ancient times when the Celts ruled over the “Pianura Padana”, the fertile land encompassed by the flowing Po river in Northern Italy. Every major Celtic settlement had a priestess that prepared a bonfire ritual after the Winter Solstice to implore the Gods for a mild Winter and a plentiful Spring-Summer season. In the Middle Ages that custom degenerated in the burning of “a witch” in the town square.
After the Holidays have passed Italians gather in a desolate part of the neighborhood to celebrate the Epiphany with family and friends. All the assistants contribute with a little money to pay for some wine, drinks and snacks. They serve a hot wine called “brule” which contains clover, cinnamon, sugar and in some instances also bits of apple. In the end they lit a bonfire to burn the Befana and watch which way the smoke is drifting to. If it’s the Southwest, it’s a good omen that the year will be good for planting and harvest.
In our traditional Italian culture, which has been nurtured by our mothers in the cozy hearth, the female gender has a double mental representation. On one hand it’s the loving and beautiful image of a young woman that gives us life and protects us all along. On the other hand it’s the disgusting image of an old witch that can take all that away. Personally I believe that our mothers sagely trained us from the cradle to be kind and affectionate with women in general so as not to awaken their hideous hidden self.
What will happen tonight at home? Will the Befana bring me a nice gift or a piece of coal? Hey, I’ve been such a good boy all year long… Don’t you agree, ladies?
As an exception we are posting this article on a Sunday to wish all our Christian friends, and those that are not but like the festivity, a very Merry Christmas with your loved ones.