La Befana the Christmas Witch

befana_epifaniaThe Christmas Witch has always been very dear to me. Doubly blest, she would visit me twice during each Christmas season: once at home to fill my shoes, and once by way of a friend. One of my best friends in high school was Lucia Travaglini, and after the Christmas Mass on January 6th, we’d walk home observing all the dolls on the windowsills. After spying to find the witch’s broom, Lucy and I would eventually exchange gifts left for the other by La Befana, the giver of gifts. The Christmas Witch never forgot me nor failed to bring just the right present. So you can imagine my surprise and sadness freshman year of college at Miami University, when my new friends had never heard of La Befana.

For Catholics, Christmas doesn’t end on December 25th, rather, that is the day the Christmas season begins. You may have heard before a Catholic song that has become generally popular called “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It is a lightly veiled catechetical song, written by a subjugated Catholic minority group living in a hostile English culture that was predominately Protestant, to count the days between December 25th and the end of Christmastide, which concludes on January 6th. Each day of the twelve days one sings about a symbol reminiscent of the Christian faith. The four calling birds refer to the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; five golden rings remind us of the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and so forth. The twelfth day ends on January 6th, which is the feast of the Epiphany. This is when the magi from the East visited the Christ-child (see Matt 2:1-18). January 6th was also a celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  In recent years, the Baptism of the Lord was split from the Epiphany given its own Sunday, and the Christmas season was extended. The liturgical season of Christmas actually continues in the Church until the Baptism of Jesus (the Sunday after the Epiphany) around January 13th.

advent-wreathBefore December 25th, the Catholic Church celebrates Advent. The word “advent,” comes from the Latin adventus (Greek parousia), means “coming” or “arrival.” The season of Advent is focused on the “coming” of Jesus as Messiah (or Christ). Catholic worship, scripture readings, and prayers prepare us spiritually for celebrating Christmas (his first coming), and also for his eventual second coming. This is why the Scripture readings during Advent include both Old Testament passages related to the expected Messiah, and New Testament passages concerning Jesus’ return. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains1:

When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: “He must increase, but I must decrease”

Since Advent looks forward to Christ’s birth and Incarnation, it is an appropriate way to begin the liturgical year. However, Advent is not part of the Christmas season itself, but a solemn preparation for it. Thus, many Catholics do not put up Christmas decorations, sing Christmas hymns, or use Christmas readings in Mass until December 25th, the first day of the Christmas season. Generally speaking the liturgical color for Advent is violet.  The use of violet reflects the general themes of Advent: penitence and royalty. The season is somewhat penitential, similar to Lent. The character of worship during Advent is more solemn, quiet, and less festive than during other times of the year. In the Catholic Church, for example, the Gloria in Excelsis is not used.

Often secular culture and many non-Catholic denominations celebrate the day of Christmas, but they take it outside of the ecclesial context of Advent and Christmastide. This is reductionism leading to a loss of meaning. Christmas is not meant to be an isolated day, but a festival of the Incarnation in the midst of the liturgical Church year. Christmas can only be properly experienced and understood after having the preparation provided by Advent. In contrast to the secular commercial excesses leading up to Christmas, the Catholic practice of Advent provides a welcome opportunity to continually re-orient ourselves as Christians to God’s will as we expectantly wait with patriarchs, prophets, and kings for the true meaning of Christmas: the God incarnated in a manger in Bethlehem.

The New Testament identifies Jesus as the expected Jewish Messiah (although Jesus was not the Messiah most Jews at the time expected, a warrior who would forcibly overthrow the Romans). The gospel writers explain that Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom by force, or to simply deliver the Jewish people from the Romans. Rather Jesus proclaimed a heavenly kingdom available to Jew and Gentile alike that would deliver man from slavery to sin. In the first few centuries Christians held untitled remembrances and fasts resembling our current Advent season. St. Hilary of Poitiers (AD 300-367) and the Spanish Council of Saragossa (AD 380) spoke of a three-week fast before Epiphany. Pope St. Leo the Great preached many homilies about “the fast of the tenth month (i.e. December)” prior to Christmas. The first explicit reference to a celebration of Advent occurs in the sixth century. The Gelasian Sacramentary (AD 750) provided liturgical material for the five Sundays before Christmas as well as Wednesdays and Fridays. The Church eventually settled on four Sundays of Advent. Until the twelfth century, in many geographical areas, Advent had a more festive tone, and white vestments were occasionally used. However, the practices and mindset of Advent became more closely related to Lent as Christ’s second coming became more and more a prominent Advent theme, as especially seen in the seventh century Bobbio Missal. During the Reformation, most Protestant groups attacked or de-emphasized many Christian holy days (holidays) and seasons, disconnecting Protestantism from the rhythms of the liturgical calendar and the spiritual understanding of the Church year. Christmas, when tolerated, was treated as a standalone event.

befanaI would venture to guess that not many American Evangelicals (or American Catholics for that matter) are familiar with the Christmas Witch, the traditions of setting dolls on the windowsill or searching for La Befana’s broom. To the ears of my Evangelical friends such practices smack of paganism and the notion of a Christmas Witch is downright blasphemous. Many Protestants in the last few years have also expressed concern over the “war on Christmas” called for by the now dominant secular culture in America, ironically initiated in the name of political correctness and tolerance. Today most people regard Christmas as a Christian holiday celebrated by all the various Christian denominations spanning the breach of Protestants and Catholic. In America even people of other faiths, or no faith have assimilated Christmas into their cycle of yearly holidays. The latest polls place the celebration of Christmas, in some form, in the United States at nearly 96% of the population. Part of the contributing fuel on the fire in the contemporary war on Christmas is the notion among Evangelicals that Christmas is somehow theirs. Sure, others may participate or share in the seasonal festivities but as every Christian knows, Jesus is the reason for the season. Evangelicals, who therefore have a strong public relationship with Jesus, assume special ownership of the celebration of his birth. It is in this close identification between Jesus and the Evangelical that these American Christians sense personal attack when the celebration of Jesus’ birth, Christmas, is altered, commercialized, or banned. Yet historically in America Protestants were the ones who originally banned Christmas because they saw it as a Catholic holiday. After all, Christmas, as the word’s origin reveals, is a celebration of Christ’s-Mass.

Why do Italian children adore an ugly witch with a big nose and nasty red mole who traveled in rags upon a broom? Despite her looks her story is what the holiday is all about. Italy is such a special country that children receive gifts from not one, but two enchanted figures during the Christmas season. Most Italian families get a visit from Babbo Natale (Saint Nicholas) on Dec. 25, but in Italy, as in most Catholic countries, the liturgical season lasts through Jan. 6, which is the Feast of the Epiphany. On that day La Befana, known to some as the Christmas witch, brings snacks and presents to all of the faithful.

Legend has it that La Befana is an old woman who lives in a house in the hills of Italy. When three foreigners knocked on her door, interrupting her cleaning, they told her that they were very wise and had been following the star which would lead them to a newborn king who would rule the world in peace. No fool, she was skeptical. How wise could these men be if they had gotten lost? She gave them directions to Bethlehem but when they invited her to join them on their quest for the baby Jesus—the Christ-Child, she shoed them away and broke down crying. You see La Befana was a mother of a newborn boy. But King Herod had also heard of this Christ-Child who would be king, and not knowing to which parents Jesus had been born, Herod had ordered all the infant sons of the land be put to death. La Befana was so traumatized when her son was murdered she could only occupy herself by doing chores and cleaning her house. She had quickly aged from despair. Her face became wrinkled, her hair turned gray and she grew to look like an old, haggard lady.

After a little while, she had second thoughts. Perhaps, the men were honest and telling the truth. If so, she missed her chance to help them reach this new king who would be holy and just. She decided she should try to catch up with them. So she threw some baked goods along with her son’s belongings in a sack, took her broom for a walking stick and raced out after the caravan in search of the wise men and the baby Jesus.  But they were long gone and La Befana soon got lost herself. Just as she tired to the point of quitting, angels appeared in the sky blessed her broom and gave it the power of flight; this was after all a night of miracles.

nativity

She finally found the wise men kneeling before a baby in a manger. It was the Christ-Child, the baby Jesus. La Befana approached Mary and showed her the contents of the sack. Immediately Mary understood what had happened and together they laid the belongings of the child at before the feet of Jesus Christ. He blessed La Befana with eternal life, appointing her to be a giver of gifts. After that, every year on Jan. 5, the eve of the Epiphany, she becomes a mother to all of the world’s children, caring for them and bringing the children gifts and treats. While at first concerned or offended by the Christmas witch, after having the legend explained to them, my Evangelical friends felt comfortable with this Italian legend which highlights how an encounter with Jesus Christ can be a transformative experience.

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church 524 []

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