La Befana

[A]: My father spent most of his youth in a small town in the Campania region of Italy…I believe he was 13 when he came to America with his parents. It was so sad…they came here at a time where immigrants were treated very poorly for having accents and…or speaking a different language, so he had lost a lot of his Italian traditions by the time he was married and starting his own family. One of the things that he made sure carried over to our new generation though was the story of La Befana…let’s see if I remember it correctly…in a lot of parts of Italy the big gift exchange happens on January 6th instead of Christmas day…I remember distinctly because I always got more presents the day after my birthday…and the night of January 5th kids would hang their socks or stockings along the chimney in hopes that La Befana (the witch) would come in the night and fill them with candy and all other sorts of treats. If you had been bad that year, supposedly, La Befana left you a hard black candy called carbone (coal) —a lot like what Santa does! I don’t know how much I remember about her background or why she would do this…but I think she was considered a sort of…add-on to the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. If I remember correctly, she lived near Bethlehem and on the night Jesus was born the Three Magi stopped to ask her for directions to the town and for food and shelter. She helped them but before she sent them on their way they invited her to come with them but she…I believe politely declined and so they went on their way. But that night she was awoken by this incredible bright light that she took as a sign to go find the Magi and baby Jesus…I don’t remember what happened in between but she couldn’t find them and the story goes that every year on January 5th she flies all around, still looking for baby Jesus and she drops treats off for sleeping children…something about hoping baby Jesus is with them or safe or something like that. When I was younger I remember my father buying small broomsticks and leaving them outside our doors to try to keep the magic alive…I guess it worked! I can’t believe I didn’t do that for the boys…frankly it’s been many years since I thought about that story.

A is a 76 year old woman who’s spent her entire life in a suburb in northern New Jersey. Both of her parents come from an Italian background, and her father specifically lived in the south of Italy until he was roughly 13.

A is a family member, and I was on the phone with her thanking her for sending me an Easter card when I realized I had the perfect opportunity to ask her if she could think of any stories that would help me with my project. She didn’t totally understand what I was asking at first, so I told her about some of the other pieces I had collected already and when I mentioned ghost stories and monsters she pretty quickly remembered the story of La Befana. She told the story with a kind of reverence and nostalgia that you only feel from someone like an older relative when they recall a magical story from their youth, and I could tell she was so very happy to remember that small piece of her father that she’s lived without for the past 30 or so years.

One of the things that sticks out most to me from hearing this story from A is the power that folklore has. A hadn’t thought about this story since she was a young girl, and although she would likely argue the point, she remembers it extremely well. This tale about a witch from thousands of years ago traveled across the ocean in the early 20th century with a little boy who managed to practically tell it across generations, and now I’ll likely remember the story for years and years to come.

La Befana serves as a sort of Santa-like figure to children, but can also be interpreted as a piece of religious folklore. The story of the birth of Jesus Christ and the 3 wise men is relatively fundamental to most forms of Christianity, but I’d never heard the addition of La Befana before and likely won’t hear it outside of the context of Italian culture. It struck me as both odd and interested that La Befana is affiliated with the story of the birth of Jesus because although I’ve never had much religious education, from what I understand about Christianity, witches and witchcraft is frowned upon; yet, nothing about what A told me frames La Befana in a negative light. She actually seems like a very positive character, as she gave food and shelter to weary travelers.