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  • I'm a Believer
    Stories of the Italian Christmas Witch

    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Italy is such a magical place for children that they receive gifts from not one but two mythical figures during the holiday season. You see in Italy, the holiday season really lasts through Jan. 6, or the Epiphany, and on that day La Befana, known to some as the Christmas witch, brings goodies to all of Italy's children.

    When my father was a child growing up in Ischia, a small island near Napoli, he - along with his friends - excitedly awaited the arrival of La Befana every year. They would hang their sisters' old stockings on the side of their beds, and the next morning the stockings would be filled with tangerines, chestnuts, a pencil for school and one piece of chocolate. You'd get charcoal if you were naughty - and that happened to my father one year when he was repeatedly cutting class to play soccer. In those days, money was scarce and La Befana, was often all the people had in the way of gifts during the holiday season. But now most Italian families get a visit from Babbo Natale (Santa Clause) on Dec. 25 as well.

    La Befana rarely, if ever, visited our home in America when I was a kid. But whenever we spent the holidays in Italy, she arrived on her broom and we would get a few extra goodies - tangerines, chestnuts and a toy or two. I remember when I was 10 or 11, we went to Ischia for Christmas and on Jan. 6, I woke up to find a baby blue teddy bear that whispered "Ti voglio tanto bene" ("I love you very much") whenever I rubbed his belly.

    I never really understood why Italian children adored an ugly witch with a big nose and ugly red mole who traveled in rags via broom. But she brought me a sweet blue bear. How bad could she be? As an adult, I learned that she's not bad at all. And the folk stories behind La Befana are heart warming. Despite her looks, she'll make a believer of anyone - and that, in a nutshell, is what the holidays are all about.

    Legend has it that she was an old Italian grandma-type happily cleaning her house, when three men showed up at her door. No fool, she was skeptical. She shooed them away when they said they were searching for baby Jesus, the newborn king. After a little while, she had second thoughts. Perhaps, the men were honest and telling the truth. If so, she missed her chance to help them reach the king. She decided she should try to catch up with them. But they were long gone. So, she handed out gifts to all of the children in the neighborhood in the hopes that one of them was Jesus. Every year she goes to look for the three wise men - and most importantly baby Jesus. When she does, she leaves little surprises for the little Italian girls and boys.

    Some say she didn't go with the wise men because she had chores to do. Others believe she promised to find them after she finished the housework. Still others have an entirely different version of the story. I've also heard that La Befana was a mother to a son who lived in King Herod's day. Herod reportedly decreed that each male child born was to be killed because one of them could be the new king. La Befana was so traumatized when her son was murdered that she didn't believe he was really killed. She set out in search of him carrying all of his belongings in a sack.

    She quickly aged from worry - her face became wrinkled, her hair turned gray and she grew to look like an old, haggard lady. She finally found a male baby in a manger and she laid out her son's belongings at the baby's feet. The baby was Jesus Christ. And He blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts. After that, every year on Jan. 5, the eve of the Epiphany, she would be mother to all of the world's children and would care for them by bringing them treats.

    I personally prefer to believe that last story is the truth. Who can't feel for a grief stricken mamma? What a lovely thought that a woman who lost her baby can turn her sadness into an excuse to nurture all children, including Jesus. But you can pick your favorite legend and stick with it. That's the beauty of La Befana.

    Traditionally, the Epiphany or Little Christmas is a holiday for children in Italy. But the adults never give up a chance for a feast. Many family and friends go from house to house visiting one another after opening La Befana's gifts in the morning. There are parades featuring the Christmas witch - at which she is sometimes joined by her companion Befano. The children sing songs to her and dolls are left out in the windows. Some families burn the dolls to cancel out the past year and usher in good luck. You can start your own La Befana traditions. Just leave out your old socks or shoes for her to fill on Jan. 5 - and believe!

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