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Diary: Marina Warner, Viva la Befana!
La Befana takes to the air, Italy (Ilya Alisse, Getty Images)
On the eve of January 6, the Feast of the Three Kings, la Befana rides the north wind through ice and snow on a battered broomstick to visit homes where children have hung up their stockings or left their shoes by the fireside. She’s a tiny, hideous, ragged crone in a threadbare cloak but she carries an overflowing basket on her back, and she fills good children’s stockings with gifts of nuts and fruits, sweets and toys. Those who have not been so good—fie!—she leaves them lumps of charcoal (Italian parents used to warn their offspring “Stai buono se vuoi fare una bella Befana,” be good if you want a beautiful Befana). Her name is a demotic corruption of the word Epiphany, the feast day that celebrates the arrival of the three kings or magi to lay their gifts before the infant Jesus; she’s the Italian counterpart of traditional Christmas figures from other parts of Europe: of Saint Nicholas who became Santa Claus and, in the Low Countries, of Santa’s sidekick, the now highly controversial folk character Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).
On one level, a folk character like la Befana personifies a certain time in the cycle of the seasons, as does Father Christmas himself or the Queen of the May, but at another, deeper level, her story extends the principle of epiphany or revelation. The legend that grew up around her relates that the kings or magi came passing by the old woman’s hovel on their way to see the baby who, they told her, was destined to be the ruler of the world. They invite her to go with them, but she doesn’t believe their story, says she has too much housework to do, and sends them on their way. She’s a Martha, choosing humdrum duties over transcendence, or one of those people of little faith whom Jesus would later castigate. La Befana however soon regrets her decision, and, seizing her broom, sets out after the mysterious visitors. But she can’t catch up with them, and she never does see the savior. The story goes, she is still looking. In the meantime, she follows the kings’ example and brings gifts.
This backstory echoes episodes in early apocryphal gospels that also introduce characters who fail to realize the momentousness of an event they’re called to witness or show doubts about its miraculousness and are punished. For example, in the apocryphal gospel of the Protoevangelium of James (19:18-20), Salome, the companion of a midwife who assisted at Jesus’s birth, scoffs at the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity and decides to examine Mary herself. For this sacrilegious act, her right hand is withered: you can see it hanging uselessly in paintings such as Robert Campin’s Nativity (Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon). La Befana doesn’t suffer actual punishment to that degree, but she still plays the crucial testifying role of the doubter confounded. But unlike Baba Yaga, la Befana doesn’t want to catch children or eat them; she looks like a cannibal witch in many grotesque puppets representing her, but she’s comic, benevolent, and very mild in comparison. In many ways, she presents a compensatory mirror of the women who often care for children, putting them to bed and telling them stories—grannies, minders, babysitters. This process of identification between la Befana and caregivers has accompanied her growing popularity—the nineteenth-century poet Giovanni Pascoli follows her as she presides over one well-to-do mother laying out gifts for her children and another, poverty-stricken, weeping that she has nothing to give. In the anthology Le Novelle della Befana (Florence, 1904), she figures in a story called “La Vendetta della Befana” (La Befana’s Revenge) where she makes her first appearance in the shape of a giant prawn—an unusual guise for a fairy godmother. Then, left out of the christening feast held for the beautiful baby princess Desiderata, she turns vengeful and wicked. But the cover of the book ignores this persona and instead represents la Befana as a well-dressed and well-coiffed young woman—an ideal bourgeois mother—against the full moon and a sky full of stars while children play happily with the gifts she has brought them, one of which is the book we are holding in our hands.
This Italian Christmas fairy joins a jolly and mysterious band of powerful crones in fairy tales who can do good or ill depending on their whims: Baba Yaga “the bony-legged” in the Russian folklore tradition is probably the most richly imagined: she lives deep in the forest in a house that runs about on chicken legs, with a surrounding fence glowing with lanterns lit inside the skulls of her victims; she has long teeth and red eyes, and she too takes to the skies, but rides in a pestle and mortar, sweeping her tracks behind her away with her broom. Such ogres are above all domestic: as with witches, their powers are located in kitchens and ovens; scarcity and hunger drive them.
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In the culture of childhood, witches are not always evil, far from it. The crone hobbling on a stick, humpbacked, hook-nosed, toothless, her chin meeting her nose till her profile looks like the man in the moon, figures in many stories in which she acts as a power for good, an enchanter in charge of magical transformations, as well as often the source of the stories we are being told: Cinderella is one of several heroines who, in some versions of the story, is kind and helpful to a beggarwoman, and then finds her destiny utterly changed. The tradition may seem to be raising terrifying specters of old women, but it also developed a strong strain that actively opposes conventional fear and contempt for the aged and weak. Old Mother Holle, from the Grimms’ collection, has big teeth and lives at the bottom of a well; when she shakes out her linens it snows on earth above, and when the good sister in the tale, after falling down the well, works hard and willingly for her, Mother Holle sends her home covered in gold.
La Befana, Mother Holle are jolly nursery crones, cousins of nursery rhyme heroines such as the old woman tossed up in a basket,
Seventy times as high as the moon;
Where she was going I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she carried a broom.
Old woman, old woman, old woman, quoth I,
Where are you going to up so high?
To brush the cobwebs off the sky!
May I go with you?
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when Charles Perrault and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy and their circle were collecting and writing fairy tales, the deadly witch trials were still within living memory, and the writers’ jocular, blithe, ironic tone about enchantments and animal metamorphoses counteracted the lethal consequences of magical beliefs and incidentally served to shape a different attitude, often tongue-in-cheek, toward indigent old women, so often the target of witchcraft fantasies. The tendency to sweeten such figures through light-footed comedy has grown since the Victorians first began publishing for the new mass audience of child readers—think of Roald Dahl’s young witches and his BFG, a classic ogre, but revised, reclaimed. La Befana embodies the possibility of a good witch; she deflects terrors of the night, destitution, old age, uselessness, and superfluousness. This spirit rings out in the jaunty Italian nursery rhyme:
La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Con le toppe alla sottana
Viva viva la Befana!
(The Befana comes by night / with her shoes all tattered and torn, / with her skirt all patched and pieced. / Long live, long live the Befana!)
The sweets she brings aren’t only playthings and candies, but a principle of defiant, playful resistance.
Marina Warner is the author of Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary and Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, among other books. Her most recent book is Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir.
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