The friendliest witch you will never meet
For all Italian children, January 6th is the one night that they will behave and be in bed early.........read on.
As silent as a cloud drifting across the dark night sky, La Befana starts out on her long journey, a journey that will take her to every child the length and breadth of Italy. This is the night of January 6th the one night, that every year, without fail, almost since time began, she has made this long and exciting journey.
Tonight, children of all ages will have been on their very best behaviour. They will have helped mum in the kitchen, chopped some wood for dad, washed behind their ears and cleaned their teeth properly before going excitedly and full of anticipation to their beds and trying to get to sleep, or as in most cases, trying to stay awake in the hope that they might manage to catch a glimpse of La Befana delivering her rewards to well behaved children.
But, La Befana, as usual, will know which children are trying to stay awake and will leave these houses until later in the night when she is sure she can arrive completely undetected. For as long as anyone can remember, La Befana has been using a very streamlined, state of the art magic broomstick that has been pre programmed to make her annual mammoth journey as easy as possible, using the fastest route and barely crossing the same area twice. And, all this long before satellites and GPS were even thought of.
If they have been really good, then a huge surprise will be waiting for them when they rush downstairs in the morning and see their bulging socks full of treats as their reward.
If they have not been as good as they should have then all they can look forward to will be a sock full of coal lumps as La Befana shows her displeasure towards naughty boys and girls.
But, who is this mysterious old lady who for thousands of years has had children eagerly trying to be on their best behaviour in the days leading up to January 6th every year.
Well, although no one has actually ever set eyes on her, she has been depicted, perhaps somewhat cruelly, as being either tall, very short, very thin, or slightly overweight. She has long straggly, very unkempt hair, which billows out behind her as she flits through the night sky at speeds that defy all known laws. She is sometimes very pretty, or she may also be an old crone with a long pointed dangly nose covered in boils and spots. In other words, she is whatever you want her to be. She has managed to evade being seen for so long; that she feels to show herself now would spoil her mystique.
Legend No 1, has it that La Befana lived at the time that Jesus was born. The story goes that the three wise men, who were on their way to pay homage to the newborn child with their gifts of, gold, incense and myrrh, stopped at her house to ask the old lady for some refreshments and a place to rest. It is said that she turned down all their requests and sent them on their way tired and hungry. Some time later, realising what she had done, she collected a large parcel of food and went in search of the three men to ask for their forgiveness, but was unable to find them. As a self imposed penance for the bad deed she had done, she swore to make amends for ever more by visiting every child in the world on the night of the anniversary of her bad deed and supply them with a special treat. A promise that she has kept, without a break, for over two thousand years.
Legend No 2, says that La Befana is a character in Italian folklore, similar to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus. The character may have originated in Rome, and then spread as a tradition to peninsular Italy. Some children believe La Befana is Santa Claus' wife and that she helps him deliver presents a few days after Christmas because he is so busy. But we know that Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, was never married, so this one is just made up. I'm sure that St Nicholas would have mentioned a wife when he was our guest on local radio a few weeks before Christmas. (As you will have read about if you have been keeping up to date with these journals)
Legend No 3, is almost similar to No 1 above except that this time, La Befana was approached by the Astrologers some days before Christ's birth. They asked for directions to where the Christ Child was to be born but she did not know. They also asked for food and shelter for the night as they were tired and weary. She made the three travellers very welcome giving them food and shelter, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village with the most pleasant home. They invited her to join them on the journey to find the Christ Child, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search for the Astrologers and the Christ child. Sadly she was not able to find them and so, to this day, La Befana is still searching for the Christ child. She leaves all the good children toys and candy, while the bad children get coal; for she never knows who might be Jesus!
One part of the legend that seems to be familiar to all the versions is her appearance. She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick, flying through the air wearing a black shawl which is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. Unlike a witch though, she is often smiling and always has a bag or a hamper filled with sweets and gifts, enough to leave a small present for every child in the country.
So, don’t forget to be really good all the time and especially on the days leading up to January 6th. The last thing you want is for La Befana to leave you a lump of coal !.
Gerry (San Vito Dei Normanni)