When Good Witches are Ugly: La Befana; or, the Italian Christmas Witch

For many people, and for children in particular, the moral alignment of a witch is clearly and invariably inscribed on her face. Old hags are evil, proffering poisoned apples or luring abandoned youngsters into deceptively delicious gingerbread houses. Good witches are bright, fairy-like creatures, with clear skin and resplendent gowns. The most famous good witch in popular culture, Glinda of Oz, tells a bewildered Dorothy that “Only bad witches are ugly”, thereby solidifying an aesthetic/moral binary that defined popular culture for much of the twentieth century.

glinda

In Italy, however, the good witch is a wizened hag. Her bent shoulders, broken shoes and tattered rags conceal a kind and generous heart. While the nation’s children may await the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, two weeks later, on the Eve of the Epiphany (January 5th), they climb into bed dreaming of the treats they will receive from the beloved La Befana.

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Traditional representation of La Befana

Traditionally depicted as an old woman, clad in ragged garments and sitting astride a broomstick, La Befana embodies the popular conception of the hideous crone; yet, her ugliness is not a signifier of evil. A truly benevolent figure, La Befana is adored by Italian children, and she is widely believed to bring sweets and small treasures to those who have been good. According to a popular Italian song,

The Befana comes by night

With her shoes all broken

With a dress in Roman style

Up, up with the Befana !!

(La Befana vien di notte

con le scarpe tutte rotte

col vestito alla “romana”

viva viva la Befana!!)

The name “Befana” is generally assumed to be a linguistic corruption of Epiphany (Epifania in Italian), the Christian festival that commemorates the arrival of the Magi, or Three Wise Men, at the infant Christ’s Bethlehem manger. On the night before the Epiphany, La Befana is believed to fly across the countryside on her broomstick. Entering homes through chimneys or keyholes, the kind old witch brings sweets to good children and coal to bad ones. Many parents, keen to keep up the illusion of La Befana’s annual visits, will not only leave treats for their children, but will even try to trick them by including some fragments “coal”, which is generally made from sugar, in their Christmas stockings.

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Sugar “coal” – it’s veeeeeeeeery sweet

In most representations, La Befana is hunchbacked and red-nosed. While she is most popularly depicted riding a broomstick, she can occasionally be seen on a donkey. Presumably, this is an iconographic connection to the Holy Family, who themselves travelled to Bethlehem on a donkey.

befana 2

Despite these Catholic trappings, La Befana is a truly dynamic example of cultural and religious syncretism. The name “Befana” finds its first literary articulation in a 1549 poem by Agnolo Firenzuola. During the Middle Ages and the early modern period, she was the subject of a popular legend that saw her interact directly with Biblical figures. In one version of the story, the Three Wise Men, following the star to Bethlem, pause to ask directions to the Christ Child’s manger. The old woman provides the Magi with guidance but declines their invitation to join them on their journey, being too busy sweeping her house; she is, after all, a diligent housekeeper. Later, she regrets her decision and sets off alone in to find the Baby Jesus, searching for him to this day. In other permutations of the tale La Befana is an older woman whose son has died. She donates her deceased child’s belongings to the infant Jesus. She is rewarded for kindness by being empowered to act as a kind of “witchy godmother” to all of the children in Italy.

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Befana and stocking I received this year

Like many folkloric traditions, however, La Befana is generally understood to have her origins in pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Her origins are, therefore, rather tangled, interwoven with a wide range of obscure rites and mythologies. One potential origin for La Befana frames the old witch as intimately connected to the Roman pagan festival, Saturnalia. A two-week long winter celebration, Saturnalia honoured the fertility God, and often end with Romans travelling to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill where an elderly woman would consult with the gods and interpret their will. Carlo Ginzburg, one of Italy’s pre-eminent witchcraft scholars, claimed that La Befana was a manifestation of an Alpine goddess Perchta (the Bright One). A pagan deity known by a thousand different names, Perchta traditionally took two forms: a beautiful woman with skin as white as snow, or more commonly, a withered hag. The beloved Christmas witch also displays numerous parallels with a Roman goddess called Strenua, who was believed was believed to represent the new year and its attendant promise of purification. She has also been connected to an obscure rite practised by the Celtic peoples who inhabited Pianura Padana and parts of the Alps, which entitled the immolation of wicker puppets in honour of the gods. La Befana has also been associated with a practice, widespread in many European countries, of burning a puppet decorated like an old woman to symbolise the death of the old year and the beginning of the new one. Alongside her multitudinous and often obscure connections to Italy’s pagan past, La Befana also possess a number of international equivalents. In particular, we find a mirror image of La Befana in the Russian story of Babushka, an old woman who also refuses the Wise Men’s offer to travel with them.

Although accumulating a veritable cornucopia of origin myths and pre-Christian antecedents, La Befana is as much a feature of modern Italy as she is an emblem of its past. The festive hag is widely adored by small children, and every year parents fill stockings with sweets (caramelle), chocolates and sugar “coal” to convince their little ones that La Befana has paid them a visit. Although, it’s interesting to note that, as Stefano Zocchi points out in an article for Folklore Thursday, the introduction of the Christmas stocking is a fairly recent innovation in Italy and most likely seems to be an American import. In the days before January 6th, shops windows across Italy are decorated with effigies of pointy-nosed, wrinkled hags. For the unsuspecting tourist, it’s almost like stumbling across a second Halloween nestled amidst the dark days of January and waiting to brighten the tedium of the long post-Christmas nights.

 

In many towns and cities across Italy, the arrival of La Befana is celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany itself and it is a spectacular event. In keeping with her mythic origins, she often arrives as part of an Epiphany procession, following the entry of the Three Wise into the town’s nativity scene (presepe). In Florence, where I celebrated the coming of La Befana this year, this procession also involved an elaborate parade of actors in medieval costume, complete with carts, horses, goats and owls.

 

La Befana herself, however, rarely enters a town on foot. As is her witchy prerogative, she flies in on her broomstick, much to the delight of the children who assemble to greet her in the town square. In reality, La Befana’s flight is achieved through the dedication of local firefighters who volunteer to don the iconic scarf and pointy nose, and abseil down the façade of a building with a broomstick between their knees.

In Florence, La Befana makes her entry just outside the famed Uffizi Gallery. Descending amidst a shower of confetti, La Befana and her assistants (more firefighters) distribute sweets to the crowd of children that rush to her side.

Outside of Italy, too, the much-loved Christmas witch often makes an appearance in festive celebrations, though usually only in areas with a high concentration of Italian migrants or their descendants. The New York Times, for instance, reported in 2009 on La Befana’s visit to a Roman Catholic school in Forest Hills, Queens.

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La Befana Comes to Queens (photo via NY Times)

As someone who didn’t grow up in Italy or in an Italian community, I can’t help but find La Befana endlessly fascinating. Superficially, she embodies all of the qualities of the wicked fairy-tale witch: she is old, ugly and ragged. She speaks to our deeply ingrained fears about death, ageing and ugliness. Yet, she is a fundamentally benevolent figure. According to legend, she is a kind old woman, a fastidious homemaker, who offers hospitality and guidance to the lost Magi. In popular folklore, she is a gentle gift-bringer, adored by children. She appears in seasonal advertising on Italian television, clothed in traditional signifiers of witchiness – the pointed hat, black clothes – but she is always portrayed as sweet and charming. There is even a popular children’s film from 2018 about her exploits entitled La befana vien di notte (which was, incidentally, directed by Michele Soavi, better known to horror fans for his bizarre 1987 slasher Stage Fright). As someone who would like to consider herself a scholar of witchcraft, La Befana is intriguing to me because of her deviation from many of the common stereotypes associated with witchcraft. She does not adhere to a binary: she is both ugly and good. Interestingly, La Befana first appeared in literary form in the 1500s, at a time when the early-modern witch trials had inflamed Europe and the cumulative or composite concept of the satanic witch as a night-flying, satanic deviant had already spread across the continent. Although she is described only as an ugly crone in her early poetic appearances, and never explicitly termed a witch, it is interesting that a kind supernatural hag could co-exist with the satanic witch of the early modern period. Although it is impossible to state when La Befana was firstly definitively termed a witch, her existence points to one of the things I find most fascinating about the witch: her inherent multivalence. The witch is many things to many people: she is at once a wizened crone and a seductive enchantress; a cannibalistic, night-flying demon and a gentle granter of wishes. The witch is both a progressive and reactionary archetype, a modern innovation and an ancient one. She is infinitely and endlessly attractive in her multiplicity.

 

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