“There is no Santa Claus in Italy.”
Harsh words indeed from my beloved grandfather, Batiste, as I sat at his knee just two weeks before Christmas many years ago. He was recounting to me tales of his poor childhood in Italy. I looked up into my grandfather’s face, and smiling brightly told him, “that’s ok Pop, we live in Australia and he comes here every year so don’t worry. I’m getting a brand new bike!” He gave that exasperated sigh I often heard when I was around him. I’m sure deep down he realised I was a lost cause, but he persisted with the Befana Legend.
He told me that as a child, he had to wait until January 6, The Feast of the Epiphany, to get his presents. I was still wondering who the “Epiphany’s” were and how come they had his stuff, when he said that Christmas gifts were actually delivered by an old crone with a hairy mole on her chin who flew in on a broom. She was called La Befana.
The legend of La Befana has her almost always in the kitchen, cooking and sweeping. On the first Christmas, the Three Wise Men stopped by her house, asking directions to Bethlehem. Obviously the three “wise” men were a little directionally challenged, because hey, via Italy to Bethlehem – how smart were these guys? Anyhow, she cooked them dinner and later over a glass of wine, they told her they were going to see the Christ child and would she like to come along? Looking around her kitchen at the mess from feeding these guys, she declined thinking it’d be hours before she could get to bed. After they left, she was sweeping the floor when she realised what they’d said. Were they really going to see the baby Jesus? She took off after them with her handbag, running so fast that the broom she still carried lifted her up into the air.
Ever since, on the Eve of the Epiphany, La Befana flies through the night still searching for the baby Jesus, and delivering goodies to children, hoping one of them is the Christ child. In the same way we leave out cookies and a glass of milk, children here leave out a glass of wine and make sure their stockings are hung for when she arrives. Traditionally, naughty children received a lump of coal, and good ones got sweets. These days they’ll find their stockings filled with a mixture of coal, actually a black rock candy, maybe onions, potatoes or olive oil and at the very bottom hopefully some chocolates and caramels.
PS. Nowadays Santa Claus is even in Italy and he is known as Babbo Natale. But he’s not the jolly fat fellow we all know so well either! He’s a little on the skinny side, obviously he doesn’t eat too much pasta!!