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La Befana

Author: Talitha Dragonfly
Posted: November 30th. 2008
Times Viewed: 11,091

The Thanksgiving turkey hasn’t even had time to cool down yet, and already I’m growing more and more suffocated by the constant bombardment of Christmas marketing. The stores are running monster marathon sales that go on from four in the morning until midnight. Alvin and the Chipmunks and Bing Crosby tunes assault me at every turn. Husbands are being brainwashed into believing that their wives won't love them anymore unless they buy diamonds, and lots of them. Teenagers are madly texting their parents to give them even better cell phones. My radio and television speakers are ready to implode from the frantic assault of “Buy, buy, BUY…for less!” As I turn down the volume, I can hear the pounding of nails as any available open plots of land are being morphed into Christmas tree lots.

My fellow Food and Beverage brethren, myself a 26-year survivor, are tightening their aprons and scrubbing down the grills in anticipation of all the fast paced holiday overindulging. My cousins in retail are already looking flustered and worn. There will be no celebrations or family gatherings for us. No. We have wants and whimsies to cater to!

I can’t help but think, however, that the real victims of this profit driven madness are the children. Somehow in all the crazy mundane trapping of Christmas, the true reason behind the season has become utterly, and possibly irreparably, lost. And once upon a time, Christmas gift-giving was supposed to be all about the children. That quaint little tradition has flown out the window faster than Brittney Spears’ reputation. And unfortunately, our Neo-Pagan children are getting hopelessly lost in the mix as well.

More than a few of our children have grown up in Christian traditions because that is where many of us have come from. At the very least, they are surrounded by Christian family members and friends. They are assaulted with the mixed message that this time of year is all about the acquiring of more “stuff”, and they can hardly be blamed for wanting some of the same.

Many of us have countered by placing a “Yule Tree” in our home, and piling up some presents underneath of it. This is a fusion of where we’ve been in our Christian past with where we are now as Pagan "converts". I have done this, and will probably continue to do this. But there is another tradition that I have performed that is meaningful and beautiful, and I feel that it lends a special balance to how my kids and stepkids have viewed holiday gift-giving. In my home, there have been yearly visits from La Befana.

La Befana is a character from Italian folklore who delivers presents to children on the eve of January 6th. She is still celebrated in Italy to this day. Her devotions have inspired many present day American Christmas customs from the infusion of Italian immigrants into the United States.

Some people say that La Befana’s name comes from a mispronunciation of the Italian word epifania (epiphany) , or the Greek epi-fanea, because her sacred day is held on the eve of the Christian Epiphany. The word epifania, curiously, originally referred to a “manifestation of moon light”.

Others say that her name is a derivative of Bastrina, gifts sacred to the Goddess Strina. Strenae, evergreen branches, were exchanged as token gifts around the time of the Winter Solstice to honor the feast day of this Goddess. Children were given gifts of figs, dates, and honey.

Early Christianity opposed her rites because they often entailed noisy decadent celebrations. Pranks were often played that included bonfires of old wood which represented Mother Nature in a festive symbolism of replacement. It was a sort of “out with the old and in with the new” gesture.

However, the newly converted Pagans coming into Christianity never altogether abandoned their former customs and the new church adopted many of their rites. Christianity may have temporarily conquered Paganism, but Paganism has definitely contaminated Christianity! As time passed, the customs of La Befana, or Strina, were altered. However, they maintained the original theme of gift-giving, especially towards children.

La Befana is seen as a “good witch”. She visits all of the children on the eve of January 6th, arriving on her broomstick. She is a smiling Crone who wears a black shawl covered in soot because she enters the children’s homes through the chimney. She carries a bag over her shoulder filled with candy, dried fruit, small gifts, and coal. She will fill children’s socks with the treats if they have been good, or with lumps of coal if they have been bad. Because she is a wise and tidy housekeeper, she will sweep the floor with her broom before she leaves. The children’s parents will leave La Befana an offering of thanks. This may be a glass of local wine, or a plate of food.

La Befana is portrayed as an old woman to highlight the archetypal links between Mother Earth lending us Her bountiful fruits and then withering away into slumber as winter approaches. Even the lumps of coal she brings to the naughty children and the ashes covering her shawl are symbolic of this. She returns in the Spring as the youthful maiden, ready to begin the Wheel of the Year once again.

La Befana’s feast day can be a powerful celebration in modern times with your own children. Even Neo-Pagan children are often overwhelmed with the greedy, possession-driven, mundane trappings of Christmas. Santa’s portrait is plastered everywhere, his bag overflowing with technological gadgets like expensive video games and other electronic toys. Nowhere can the spiritual reasons behind this season be found behind Santa’s gluttonous grin.

Pagan parents can instead use the wise and generous crone La Befana to give more personal, meaningful gifts. On the eve of January 6th, let your children hang their socks from a centrally located area in your home. The mantle of your fireplace, if you have one, will do nicely. If not, perhaps somewhere in your kitchen. Even a simple doorknob will suffice. Make goodies together for La Befana, like homemade cookies. After your children have fallen asleep, fill their socks with inexpensive mementos that express special times you have shared or places you’ve been to together, and your children’s talents. Sweeten their gifts with healthy snacks like fresh fruit and raisins. After they have received their presents the following morning, talk about what the gifts symbolize and why they are so special.

La Befana’s more gentle and loving approach will teach our children that good intentions far outweigh dollar signs when it comes to celebrating from the heart. The world could definitely use a little bit of her magick.


Talitha Dragonfly

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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