Did you know that Italy has a Christmas Witch, La Befana? Yes. The gift giver in Italy is a woman. La Befana flies on her broomstick on the Eve of the Epiphany, January 5, to leave candy, or charcoal, in children’s stockings! In Italy, children hang stockings on the Eve of the Epiphany, the celebration of the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ child. The legend of why La Befana bring gifts is somewhat sad, but it is celebrated robustly in Italy during the holidays.
On the way to take gifts to the Christ Child, the Wise Men stopped at Befana’s hut to ask directions to Bethlehem, and they also asked her to join them. She said no, she was busy. Soon, a Shepherd stopped by and asked her to come with him to Bethlehem, and she again said no. When it became dark that night she saw the star in the East and realized she should have gone with them. She gathered up all of the candy and children’s gifts in her hut which had belonged to her own child, who had died, and flew off in search of the Christ Child. The Legend of La Befana is that she never found the Child, but instead she left the candies and gifts in the stockings of the good children in Italy. Of course, if a child was badly behaved, that child received charcoal, or a stick, instead. Every year, on the Eve of the Epiphany, La Befana flies off in search of the Christ Child, but cannot find him, so she gives Italian children the gifts instead.
Of course, there are many examples of Pagan customs being adopted by the Christian Church. “In the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily (1823), John J. Blunt says:
This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain pagan goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year’s gifts, ‘Strenae,’ from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. ” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Befana
Between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany, a market is held in Piazza Navona, the home of the Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini. At this market, toys, sugar charcoal, and candies are sold. La Befana shows herself at a window in the Piazza on January 6, at midnight. Or so the story goes! I am adding to my list of Christmas time visits, Roma. I want to go to the Piazza Navona and stay until midnight! How I would LOVE to see La Befana make her appearance! The market looks lovely also.
There are other Italian Christmas traditions. The celebrations begin 8 days before Christmas, and continue until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. “On December 23rd, sometimes earlier, children dressed as shepherds with sandals, leggings tied with crossing thongs, and wearing shepherds’ hats, go from house to house playing songs on shepherds’ pipes and giving recitations. They receive money to buy Christmas treats. In cities like Rome real shepherds sometimes carry out the performance. A strict fast is observed 24 hours before Christmas after which a meal with many dishes (but no meat) is served. The traditional Christmas dinner, Cenone, is made up of spaghetti and anchovies, an assortment of fish, fresh broccoli, tossed salad, fruits, and sweets” (Christmas in Italy:Traditions). A New Year’s Banquet is eaten on December 31, and raisin bread and champagne are special features of the feast. The Italian food sounds rather wonderful, wouldn’t you say?
As in France, the presepio, or the Nativity, is important. What became the Christmas tree in other countries has become the ceppo, the Tree of Light tradition in Italy. The ceppo is a wooden triangular frame several feet high which supports tiers of shelves with a presepio on the bottom shelf. There are fruits, candies, and gifts on the higher shelves. It has hand carved figurines and is decorated extravagantly, with colored paper, gilt pine cones, and candles. In some homes, a ceppo is made for each child. Hotels and large establishments often have large displays of the presepio.
There is also a tradition of the Urn of Fate at the lighting of the Yule Log. A large ornamental bowl holds gifts for the entire family at Christmas, and at a family gathering, toasts and good wishes are made by all. The gifts are taken out of the bowl by each family member until everyone has their gift.
But my very favorite Italian tradition is: instead of writing to Santa Claus asking for material items and gifts, Italian children write letters to their parents, telling them how much they love and appreciate them! These letters are given to the parents and read on Christmas Eve. Don’t you think that is a lovely tradition? Now that grandchildren have come into our lives, I think I would like to start that tradition in our family by helping our grandkids write those letters. Wouldn’t that be fun??
Does your family celebrate any ethnic traditions for the holidays?
You’d also enjoy: