I don’t know about you, but if I can wedge Halloween into any other holiday, I absolutely will. Sure, everyone is already familiar with the Halloween-meets-Christmas crossover The Nightmare Before Christmas, but what if I told you the Italians figured out how to do a holiday mashup long before Tim Burton ever did? Move over, Mrs. Claus, because La Befana, the wine-drinking, cheer-spreading, gift-giving Christmas witch is the heroine this holiday really needs.
The legend of La Befana began in Southern Italy, when the biblical magi – AKA the Three Wise Men – paid her a visit on their way to attend birth of Jesus. Turns out they just need to stop and ask for directions, because their North Star GPS was sending them in circles. La Befana, being the eternal homemaker she was, decided to let the wandering wise men take refuge with her for the night, as she had the nicest, most well-kept house in the entire village. The men accepted, and in thanks, asked the old woman to accompany them to witness the birth of Christ. Much like any sane woman would if three strange men showed up and asked her to wander off into the wilderness with them, La Befana declined, citing way too much housework to take care of, which was sort of that era’s version of, ‘I can’t – I’m washing my hair’.
A few days later, La Befana realized she may have had made a huge mistake, and that witnessing the birth of humanity’s savior might be, I don’t know, kind of important. La Befana headed out into the night in search of the travelers, but unfortunately her sense of direction was even worse than the Three Wise Men’s. She never did manage to find the birthplace of Jesus, and she’s since spent the past 2000 years wandering the planet searching for her destination, leaving toys for all of the good little children, and coal, onions, and garlic for the bad ones.
Of course, that was the least-sad take on the La Befana legend, turning the Christmas witch into more of an adventure comedy than a drama centered around a woman’s grief. In a darker version of the witch’s history, she’s depicted as a mother who has gone mad with the death of her only son. Grief stricken, she hears the story of the birth of Jesus, and leaves her home, convinced that he is the reincarnation of her son. Eventually, after many weeks of searching, La Befana finds the infant and gives him all of her deceased son’s earthly possessions. Jesus reciprocates the kindness and blesses the woman, making her the honorary mother of every child in Italy. Overjoyed, La Befana travels the country gifting all of the little children presents during the holiday season.
Some folklorists think that the name Befana is actually a mispronunciation of the Greek word or epiphaneia or epifania, relating to a Greek version of Christmas, or possibly a butchered version of Bastrina, associated with the goddess Strina – who also gave gifts. As it so happens, Christmas gifts used to be called “strenna” in Italian, which comes from a Roman gift-giving festival celebrating Ianus and Strenia.
Much like the best spells, La Befana seems to be a full cauldron of powerful ingredients.
Much like her jolly, bearded counterpart, La Befana also appreciates a snack (or two) when she stops buy your house with her sack full of goodies. In place of milk and cookies, the old crone prefers bottles of wine and boiled sausage with a side of broccoli.
There is one warning that comes with visits from the Christmas Witch: if you spot her making her nightly rounds on Christmas Eve, don’t make eye contact with her, or you’ll get a good smack in the face from the tail of her broom, as the old woman does not like to be seen. This was likely a story told to children to keep them in their beds at night, but you might want to shield your eyes, just in case.
This holiday season, if you’re looking to successfully mashup your Christmas and Halloween traditions, I’d recommend leaving a big glass of red wine out for La Befana! Hopefully the Christmas Witch will pay a visit to your house, and leave a little something spooky under your tree this year!