According to folklore we are currently in the most magical time of the year – the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany. It was believed witches were most present at this time especially on the twelfth night (remember your Shakespeare?) – The eve of the Epiphany – it, the 5th January, was considered the most magical night of the year, when wishes could be made and the future could be predicted through ‘signs’ and games.
In some parts of Italy an olive tree leaf, thrown into the fire could tell you if your wish would come through or not. If it took long to burn your wish would be fulfilled. However if instead it burned too quickly, it was hard luck try again next year and a sign to adjust your wishes.
It was the night girls would place three broad beans in various stages of being peeled, under their pillow and believed they would see their future husbands in their dreams.
In the morning they would reach under their pillow and pull out a bean. If it was the the fully peeled one then it meant the groom would be rich, if it was the unpeeled one he would be poor and the half-peeled one indicated he’d be something in the middle.
Christmas spirit starts later in Italy than other parts of the western world but lasts longer and it is much less commercialised.
They tend to wait until the 6th December to turn on the Christmas lights and the celebrations go on until the 6th January with the night of the 5th January, being the favourite for kids as it is the night the Befana comes.
I was first told about La Befana a few years ago by a baker.
“What the hell is that?” I said pointing at the pile of dark grey lumps piled in the basket on the counter of the bakery.
“It is Carbone, made from sugar,” the baker smiles as he packs up my cream cakes. “If you are bad, La Befana leaves them for you.”
“I think you call her a witch?”
He points to the smiling puppet witch sitting on her broomstick hanging from the shelf.
It turns out that La Befana is a happy smiling old lady, who rides around on her broomstick comes down the chimney and leaves candy and presents for good children and a lump of coal if they are bad. A glass of wine and some food is left out for the Befana. It all sounds familiar doesn’t it? As with so many pagan traditions and idols, when Christian gaslighting became all the rage, La Befana’s action were absorbed into Santa and the lady herself absorbed into a biblical story.
The legend now stands that the three wise men stopped at her home over night on their way to finding the infant Jesus. She was known to be the best housekeeper in the village so the choice of house was natural. They all got on so well that the lads invited her along on their adventure but naturally after having three men stay in her house she felt had too much housework to do.
But later in the day she said “feck it, life is too short to miss out on such an invitation”, so she jumped on her broomstick and tried to catch up with them and see the baby they were so excited about. To this day, La Befana is searching for the lads and the baby. While searching she leaves all the good children toys and sweets, while the bad children get coal (‘carbone’), onions or garlic.
Anyone who sees La Befana will receive a thump from her broomstick – a rumour created to keep children in their beds. This scare tactic was not absorbed by Santa Claus, which is unfortunate as it’s one of my favourites.
The ancient Italians seemed keen to scare their kids into sleeping, as this ‘lullaby’ translated to english would indicate:
Who will I give this child to?
If I give it to the Befana
she will keep him one whole week.
If I give it to the Bogey Man
he will keep him one whole year.
But if the child goes to slee
then his mother will him keep.”
Of course the Italian christians tried to get rid of the idea of a loved ‘witch’. On the morning of 6th January, sacristans would go from house to house leaving the ‘Bboffe water’, which was to be sprinkled around the house to keep witches away. Which was a bit late on their part since La Befana would have been and gone the night before.
So get your beans, coal and olive leaves ready for the last Christmas celebration Italian style, but forget the Bboffe water, the world could do with the help of a few good witches now.