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La Befana

Informant: “So in Italy, there’s two things, so there’s La Befana, which is ‘The Witch’, kind of, I don’t remember exactly what it translates to, but it’s whatever the witch is. And then there’s Babbo Natale, and what that means is father Christmas. And so in northern Italy, this is kind of funny, in northern Italy the word Babbo, it’s kind of like saying daddy, but in the south part of Italy, it doesn’t mean daddy, it means like an idiot [laughs]. But that’s like saying ‘dad’ in northern Italy. So Babbo Natale, maybe that’s in the south now too, but mostly it was in the north, you know. And in the south, mostly they had La Befana. So the story was that on January 6th, which was the Epiphany, and they sort of matched it up so the kids in Sicily, they would get presents not from Babbo Natale, and they got presents not on Christmas day, but on January 6th which was when the three kings brought their gifts to Jesus. So La Befana would go around and she would give presents. So the story was that when the three Kings were going to Jerusalem to find the newborn baby Jesus, they stopped at La Befana’s house in order to ask for directions. When they left, they asked her to join them, but she said that she couldn’t because she had too much housework to do, but once they left she immediately knew she made the wrong decision, so she grabbed a bunch of small treats and went out looking for them, but she couldn’t find them, so she gave treats to every child she came across in hopes that one of them was the baby Jesus. So every year on the eve of the Epiphany, she goes out in search of Christ, and gives treats to all of the good children that she comes across. Though when [my sisters and I] were growing up, our parents wanted us to be American, so we didn’t have La Befana, we had Santa Claus [laughs].

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: This is an interesting variant on the Santa Claus story, or rather the ‘mysterious Christmas gift giver’ narrative. It almost seems like it has aspects of an urban legend scary story, as it almost seems like La Befana is ‘cursed to wander the Earth every year on the anniversary of [some event] because of the mistake she made’ which, in any other context, would seem exactly like the ending to some scary campfire story. However, she does it for benevolent reasons, so it’s all ok. It’s also curious to see how the informant’s parents tried to suppress her practicing of this particular bit of folklore in order to “Americanize” her and her siblings. It is also strange how an entity with as non malevolent of intentions as giving gifts to good children is given a name with such a negative connotation as ‘The Witch’.

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