Why you should care
Because even Christmas has a female star.
It’s a warm January evening, 1941, and 8-year-old Paolo Rossi is excited as he hangs his biggest, most brightly striped sock above the fireplace of his house in Rome. Tonight’s the night La Befana— aka the Witch, an ugly old flying lady with torn shoes, a crooked nose and a hairy upper lip — will visit by swooping down onto the roof with her broom and coming down the chimney to bring Paolo gifts and candy.
Of course, the amount of one’s haul is determined by whether “you’ve been a good or bad boy,” his mom shouts from the kitchen, as she prepares bags full of clothing and food for the homeless. If you’re good, “Befana will stuff your sock with chocolates, nuts and candy.” If naughty? Charcoal. Early the next morning, January 6, Paolo runs to the fireplace and finds … charcoal. He’s disappointed, of course, but luckily his lump of coal is actually black sugar candy, and he’s happy that Befana took the pair of new slippers he had left out for her.
Father Christmas was considered an outsider to Italian tradition.
Andrea Ungari, LUISS University history professor
“I saw it coming: My grades were terrible that year, and I was always grounded,” the 83-year-old admits. But he loved Befana because she knew everything and was more special to him than Santa Claus — a foreign Father Christmas who just couldn’t measure up to the Italian Mother Christmas. And Rossi still relives his childhood excitement by watching his grandchildren rush to the fireplace every January 6 to grab their treats.
Italians have been celebrating this sweet witch since pagan times, but it was only in 1928 that Benito Mussolini established the Epifania (Epiphany) festivity on January 6, making it a national holiday and linking the witch’s arrival to that of the three wise men visiting Baby Jesus’ stable to bring him gifts. It was typical of the regime to appropriate pagan and Roman myths or symbols to glorify the regime as part of “Mussolini’s fascistization of society,” says Andrea Ungari, a history professor at Rome’s LUISS University. Pushed by the ideal of great ancient Rome, Mussolini quite cleverly adapted (and adopted) the tale of the fertility and abundance goddesses who flew over fields at night to bless harvests to the Befana myth. There is also a link to a Christian legend, which says the three kings, on their way to visit infant Jesus, stopped by the cottage of an old lady and asked her to join them on their holy pilgrimage. She refused but later felt guilty for not going, which prompted her to hop on her magical broom and visit children’s homes around the globe, presents in hand.
During Mussolini’s regime, rich fascist families were called upon to give food and old clothes to poor and homeless children through national welfare campaigns every January 6. These drives were supported by the network of regime-created juvenile associations that focused on hailing fascism’s social mission and honoring Mussolini. La Befana was even referred to as “the Fascist Befana.” But long after the fall of fascism and the end of World War II, many political parties continued exploiting the witch as a propaganda tool favoring poor families and couples.
There was another reason for turning a wrinkled granny with warts on her nose and chin into a Christmas star: In an attempt to ban all foreign-sounding and English-related words, traditions and customs, Il Duce substituted “imported and globalized” Santa Claus with “local” Befana, adds Ungari. “Father Christmas was considered an outsider to Italian tradition,” he explains, noting how Befana’s gifts were and are considered superior to Santa’s offerings. Poems and funny riddles were invented to celebrate her arrival, like:
La Befana comes during the night, with torn shoes, a Roman hat and undervest; long live La Befana!
This good old witch survived her fascist heritage and has endured as the major Italian Christmas figure. “She’s sacred and untouchable,” says Ungari. He remembers when Italian schools rebelled with “domestic strikes” against the government’s decision to abolish the festivity in 1977. Families forbade their children from attending classes for many days in protest. Ungari was one of those dissident kids; his mother was a Befana worshipper. Eight years later, following pressing calls from Catholic and consumer lobbies, the Befana holiday was reintroduced once and for all.
January 6 is a big celebration, even bigger than Christmas Eve or Christmas, because for most Italians across the boot it’s a more heartfelt and nationalist holiday. In the north, Befana scarecrows and puppets are burned on bonfires to bless the new year or taken for a stroll on chariots across villages. In the Latium region, locals perform the “Befana Dive,” the new year’s first swim into the cold sea, which is believed to keep bad luck at bay. Women affectionately call each other “befana” on January 6.
Not much has changed in the past 70 years, says Rossi. The Epifania remains the closing festivity of all Christmas holidays. “We have a motto for that: ‘La Befana takes away on her broom all the joy!’” he says. Because January 6 is also D-day — the last hurrah before kids must return to school and grown-ups get back to work.