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The Christmas Witch

For many American Catholics, the Christmas season pretty much ended yesterday at the Mass for the Feast of Epiphany. Yes, depending on how you reckon the Christmas season, we may yet continue to celebrate Christmas through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord—or through Candlemas—but, for many Americans, Christmas feels like it is over for the year.

Here in the United States, the Christmas trees are being taken down, the stockings and ornaments are being tucked away, the credit card bills are piling up. . . . So, perhaps it may surprise you to learn that tonight is “Christmas Eve” in Italy, and children will be waiting for presents from a magical creature riding into town on an enchanted mode of transportation.

Once upon a time

The story goes something like this . . .

Once upon a time, around the time that Wise Men were roaming the land in search of a newborn King, an elderly woman was cleaning her house. She heard a knock on the door. When she opened the door she found three wise men who needed directions to Bethlehem. (She knew they must be wise because, after all, they stopped to ask for directions.) She pointed them toward Bethlehem, and they invited her to join them for they were going to visit a newborn King.

No, Befana did not want to go see a baby King. She had a floor to sweep, furniture to dust, clothes to mend, and food to cook. How would a poor old woman like herself keep body and soul together if she trotted off in the middle of the night to visit an infant King? The very idea! Go on now!

So, the Wise Men went on their way. But soon enough there was another knock on the door. It was a shepherd this time, and he had wonderful news. Had Befana heard about the newborn King born not far away in Bethlehem (cf. Luke 2:17–18)? He was going back to see the baby again. Would Befana like to join him on the journey?

Now Befana was becoming annoyed. What was all this fuss over a baby, royal or not, anyway? Babies, even royal babies, were born every day. She shooed away the shepherd, too, and returned to her housekeeping. She swept, she dusted, she mended, she cooked. The last thing she wanted to do was to think about another baby. . . .

Then, the legend says, a strange light appeared in the night sky. Befana remembered the news of a newborn King, as told to her by the Wise Men and the shepherd. Maybe she should go and visit the baby. Maybe the baby’s mother might need some help. Goodness knew that the gifts the Wise Men were taking to present to the child would not be practical for a newborn. But where would she find something a new mother might need and appreciate this time of night?

A lump grew in Befana’s throat. Oh, yes, she did still have a few things that might work. She went to the chest where she kept her most treasured possessions and pulled out a small blanket and a few clothes that she had made for her own expected child many years before—a child who never had the chance to use them. Clutching her bundle of gifts, she dropped her housework and went in search of the newborn King.

Legend has it that Befana became lost on her journey and never found the newborn King. And so, every year on the night before the Feast of Epiphany (traditionally observed on January 6), La Befana flies around the world on her broomstick, distributing gifts to good children and lumps of coal to bad children, all the while searching for the infant King she had once turned down the opportunity to visit.

The legend of La Befana

The story of La Befana has become for Italian children much what the story of Santa Claus has become for American children. And just as Northern European myths attached to the story of St. Nicholas have turned a saintly bishop into “a right jolly old elf,” so Mediterranean myths attached to La Befana have turned a goodhearted elderly woman into “the Christmas witch.” Awhile back, I heard from an inquirer who was upset that her son was being taught about La Befana:

My son has been learning about La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch who brings goodies to all of Italy's children, in his Italian class at a Catholic school. I have downloaded information regarding this legend and I am quite distressed that my son now believes that there are "good" witches. I have trawled through different sites but I really require some guidance and Catholic knowledge on how I should handle this situation both at home and at the school.
I don't believe that it should have been taught in any way and I would like to gently inform the teacher why what is seen as harmless lessons are fraught with danger. I really need a strong Catholic site with relevant information regarding this as I am aware of other parents with similiar concerns. Thank you for your time and effort.

I sympathized with this parent’s concern that her child evidently was being taught about “good witches,” but shared with her that the story of La Befana, as told above, need not be a cause for concern. Perhaps the teacher might be asked to avoid referring to Befana as a “witch,” to avoid confusion for the children, but surely there was no need to avoid telling the story of Befana altogether.

Is the story of Befana necessary to Christmas? Of course not. It’s a story, and unlike the story of Santa Claus, is not based on a known historical figure. But it could be considered a parable, of sorts, a story with moral lessons that can be drawn from it. What can children learn from the story of La Befana?

Lessons from La Befana

Opportunity knocks. When God knocks on the door of our soul, he doesn’t often do so in a way that is instantly recognizable that he is the one who is calling. Perhaps God’s invitation may come in the guise of interruptions to routine, especially persistent interruptions from people unknown to each other but each making the same request of you.

The late Cirilo Flores, Bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, often told the story of how he recognized his vocation to the priesthood. While attending the reception following the funeral of a friend, three separate priests came up to him during the reception and each of them made the same observation: “You should become a priest!” At the third such comment, Bishop Flores said, he told the priest that he had already tried to become a priest a decade earlier with the Jesuits and it didn’t work out. His priest friend waved this away and said that Cirilo should apply to the local diocese. He did, and became a priest nearly twenty years after he thought his shot at the priesthood had ended. Eventually he would become a bishop.

Befana’s visitors likewise brought with them an opportunity for Befana. She did not immediately recognize the importance of the invitation, but the repeated offers made an impression upon her. Likewise, we can see repeated invitations as a message from God.

Everyone has a story. One reason Befana is called a “witch” is because some of the mythology of her story is taken from the Roman goddess Strenua, the goddess of the new year, who is a patroness of purification and well-being. Calling her a “witch,” in this sense, is a way of classifying her as a legendary creature with the powers of a pagan deity, which is likely where we get the story of her magical flights on a broomstick on Epiphany Eve.

But there is another sense in which Befana might be considered a “witch.” In her interactions with the Wise Men and with the shepherd, she is said to be dismissive. She turns down their invitations to join them in visiting the newborn King. Elderly women living alone, without family, are not often viewed with much sympathy. Perhaps in your own life you have known a neighborhood “witch” or two, protective of her turf, and without patience for small children or their needs.

Befana’s story though shows that there may be a reason why someone reacts badly in response to hospitable gestures or offered kindnesses. In Befana’s case, the invitation to visit a new baby could have been painful because she had lost a child of her own many years before. If she had no other family to cushion the blow of her child’s death, or if the family she had was now deceased as well, it is understandable that she might protect herself from remembered pain by avoiding small children.

It is never too late. Even though Befana turned down the offers to visit the infant King, she eventually realized that she needed to go after all. She now had no one to go with her, and going alone was quite dangerous for an elderly woman traveling by herself, but she went anyway. Perhaps, like the Virgin Mary, she went because the need of a new mother spoke to her heart (cf. Luke 1:39–40). Perhaps she went because she felt she would be needed and she hadn’t felt needed in a very long time. But, whatever the reason, she went. Jesus told a parable that has a similar moral lesson:

[Jesus asked "the chief priests and the elders of the people"], "What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not'; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?"
They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you" (Matt. 21:28–31).

The Child in every child. While I have a soft spot in my heart for Clement C. Moore‘s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, it undoubtedly reflects its origins as the work of a 19th-century Protestant seminary professor. Lovely and fanciful though the poem is from a stylistic perspective, the story itself is really nothing more than a flat, two-dimensional tale of a magical character who drops down from the sky to bestow bounty on good children who mind their parents by going straight to bed. There is little else to be learned from Moore’s poem.

La Befana’s story, on the other hand, is simple enough to delight a child hoping for treats on Epiphany, but it is a much richer tale with multiple lessons to offer. One of the most relevant of those lessons for our day may be Befana’s motive for distributing her goodies. She is not merely rewarding good children for being good; she is seeking the Christ Child and giving to good children what she hopes one day to give directly to the baby King.

And, if we remember Befana’s grief for her own lost child, then we have the possibility of a powerful pro-life message. She cannot get past her own grief until she reaches out to someone else in need. When she cannot immediately find the Child she seeks, she helps other children along the way, and may eventually discover that she has been caring for the baby King all along.

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, "Come, oh blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:34–40).

 

Written By: Michelle Arnold










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