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Sun Dec 23, 2018, 09:25 AM

FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 23: La Befana - Italy's Christmas Witch

The legend of Befana began thousands of years ago and remains to this day a tradition practised by Italian children and their families. As the story goes, one day, the three Magi left their country bearing special gifts of gold, incense and myrrh for the new-born Jesus Christ. They were guided by a star across many countries. At every village that they passed, people ran to meet them and accompany them in their journey.

But there was one old woman who did not join the Magi. She claimed to be too busy with her housework and promised to join them later when she had time. The next day, she realized her mistake and frantically ran after the Magi with gifts for the child, still clutching her broom. But it was too late – the Magi were long gone.

In other versions of the story, she refuses to give the Magi directions. (I am skeptical. Would Wise Men really stop and ask some random woman for directions?)

Ever since then the old woman has been known as “La Befana” or simply “Befana.” On the eve of January 6th, Befana flies from house to house on her old broomstick and delivers all the gifts she didn’t give to the Holy Child to good girls and boys.

In fact, Befana’s name is the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphany,” and is significant because the religious feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th. This Christian celebration, in remembrance of the Magi’s visit to Jesus, can include purifying rites and benedictions with water. Water prepared on the eve of the Epiphany (the night that Befana flies the skies) is said to have sacred properties that can ward off evil spirits and is used in critical moments of a family’s life. Celebration of the Epiphany can be traced as far back as the 13th century and is one of the most popular Italian feasts.

La Befana shares a lot of similarities with Santa. Children write her letters and leave their stockings for her to fill. See flies around at night with gifts. She leaves cinders, coal and onions for the bad kids. She climbs down chimneys to enter houses.

Here's a video of the La Befana Festival in Urbania, Italy from 2014. The festival ends with the witch flying over the streets and fireworks.

(For an explanation of my advent project and a link to last years posts, see
https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181152160 )

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Reply FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 23: La Befana - Italy's Christmas Witch (Original post)
FSogol Dec 2018 OP
Donkees Dec 2018 #1
FSogol Dec 2018 #2
Donkees Dec 2018 #3
FSogol Dec 2018 #4
Donkees Dec 2018 #5

Response to FSogol (Original post)

Sun Dec 23, 2018, 11:14 AM

1. Pagan origins

Pagan origins

The feast of this fairy-tale old lady, so much beloved and feared by Italian children, takes origin from the "old lady" which was burned in the squares to celebrate the end of the year, a symbol of time cycles always ending and beginning again. The Befana is also related to the mysterious rites of the Celtic peoples once inhabiting the whole Pianura Padana and part of the Alps, when wicker puppets were set on fire in honor of ancient gods. The witch, the woman magician (the priestess of the ancient celtic culture that knew the secrets of nature) took the form of the Befana. The "coal" that she would leave to the nasty children was actually also a symbol of fertility connected to the sacred bonfires and the "ceppo". The other almost universal symbol accompanying the old lady, the broom, that clearly resembles a magic wand, is also connected to the tree and the nature rituals of the Celts in their forests.

In the pre-Christian calendar solstice rites used to celebrate the cycle of the sun, and were slowly merged with the cycle of the life of man and the generations, following one another. This eternal cycle was represented by symbols to exorcise anxiety. In many cultures the relations between grown-ups and children is based on the observance of rules achieved through the fear of punishments and expectations of reward. To this family of figures belong the ogre and witch, transformed into the more positive and pedagogical figures of Santa Claus and the Befana.

In the Romagna region Epiphany was a pagan festival when the Ancestors (symbols of a worship of the dead connected to agrarian symbols of fertility) brought a good omen of abundance to the living. From that take origin the Befanotti (representing the ancestors) going from home to home singing the "Pasquella", and also the Befana coming down through the chimneys.


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Response to Donkees (Reply #1)

Sun Dec 23, 2018, 01:17 PM

2. True, thanks for posting. Most Christian rituals have pagan roots. n/t

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Response to FSogol (Reply #2)

Sun Dec 23, 2018, 04:47 PM

3. The Befana name doesn't seem to have any relationship to the word epiphany either ...

It just translates as 'hag', from her aspects in the ancient pagan traditions in that region. The Christian Epiphany celebration coincided with the pagan agricultural calendar of fertility rituals, honoring ancestors and nature spirits, preparing for new growth, etc.

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Response to Donkees (Reply #3)

Sun Dec 23, 2018, 10:45 PM

4. I don't claim to know ancient or modern greek, but you have to admit

that befana, epifania, and epiphany are pretty close.

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Response to FSogol (Reply #4)

Mon Dec 24, 2018, 08:41 AM

5. The 'ana' part of the word is a feminine ending, ''antefana, jordana, galileana ..."

Since she existed in local pagan lore long before the Christian Epiphany ever existed, her name wouldn't have been originally described as being ''of the epiphany''. All these Christian alterations of her pagan persona were created along with the fables of the Magi visiting Italy, regretting her mistake of not traveling with the Magi, spending the rest of her life making amends to the baby Jesus, etc. It was part of the process of transforming local pagan lore and practices into Christianity.

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