La Befana

Today is Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany, the day when the wise men are believed to have visited Jesus. In Italy, it is the most important day for children because it means yet more presents, this time from La Befana, a witch, or to give her a more honest description, a post-menopausal woman with a hang-up about housework.

Excited children leave notes by the chimney with their wishlist for the Befana. The next morning the good ones get what they asked for (as long as it wasn’t the Barbie laptop, 80+ Euros), while the bad ones get a lump of coal. These days even the coal is usually made out of sugar, so everyone’s a winner.

The legend of the Befana goes back to the wise men. In a rare historically documented example of men asking for directions, the wise men stopped at the Befana’s house on their search for Jesus. (Come to think of it, given that they turned up 12 days after the event, they must have wandered around for ages before finally admitting they were lost.) The wise men asked the old woman to join them on their quest, but she refused, saying she had too much housework. And so began the myth of the obsessive-compulsive post-menopausal woman. She later changed her mind, but the wise men were long gone. Realizing she might have missed out on something big, she ran round giving presents to every child, just in case it (surely only boys?) was the Christ child.

Hmmm, a pretty flimsy tale if you ask me. Fabrisia has more on the story, particularly the pagan origins, which seem a lot more plausible and woman-friendly. Fabrisia has received many awards for her site, including the Pagan Order of Merit. Unfortunately she hasn’t taken note of the Crap Midi Files Award for Intensely Annoying Websites. Aaagh! Where’s the STOP button!!

To finish the story on the home front, we didn’t celebrate Befana, since we’d already had Sinterklaas on December 5 (Dutch tradition), a birthday on the same day and then a double Christmas with each set of grandparents. Basta!