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Viva, viva la Befana

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

A pile of clementines, some with leaves and stems, on a blue and white dish rag.
Cassandra Marsillo, 2021.

La Befana vien di notte

Con le scarpe tutte rotte

Col vestito da romana

Viva, viva la Befana!

Long live la Befana!

The more you learn about la Befana, the further you go back in time. This is an ancient being and story, with roots in Roman agricultural rites. The rites - later adopted and adapted as the Epiphany in Christianity - marked the seasonal shift from the harvest of the past year to the winter. On the twelfth night after the winter solstice, ancient Romans celebrated death and rebirth through Mother Nature. La Befana is Mother Nature.

La Befana is also the moon goddess. The Romans believed that in these twelve nights, which represent the twelve months of their calendar, female figures flew over the cultivated fields, manifesting fertility for future crops. These figures were Diana, the goddess of the moon, wild animals, and the hunt; they were Sàtia (goddess of satiety, sufficiency), or Abùndia (goddess of abundance).

La Befana is winter. In Germanic mythology, Holda and Berchta, goddesses of Alpine pagans, are linked to the feast of Epiphany. Berchta was said to roam the countryside at midwinter, and to enter homes during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (especially on the Twelfth Night). For the good children, she left silver coins. As for the bad children, they faced a much more brutal fate: she would cut open their bellies, remove the stomach, and fill them with straw and pebbles.

La Befana is a strega. A witch. In the 4th century, the Roman Church began to condemn all pagan rites and beliefs because they viewed them as satanic. And although the Befana was a benevolent being, she would be personified as a witch; a crone, with a big nose, and - of course - her broom. The broom, ancient symbol of purification of houses, souls, and, in anticipation of the seasonal rebirth, of the crops, would then be considered an instrument of witchcraft.

La Befana is repentance. Though the church refused to have her, la Befana is also part of the story of the birth of Jesus. It is said that on their way to Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the newborn, the three Magi - Balthasar, Melchior, and Gathaspar - got lost. Unable to find their way, they asked an elderly woman for directions. She told them where to go so that they could regain their path, and the three men asked her to join them on their journey. She said no, and after insisting a few times, they continued on their way without her. She soon regretted not having followed them and quickly packed a basket of sweets, leaving her house to look for them. She was too late, however, and could not find them again. She stopped at every house along the way, giving out sweets to the children she met, in the hopes that one of them was little Jesus. Since then, she has traveled the world, giving gifts to all the children, in repentance, hoping to be forgiven for not following them that night.

La Befana is a magic woman, a generous soul, she is misunderstood and sometimes forgotten. She is pagan, she’s spiritual, she’s folklore, she’s history.

And she was a mystery to me growing up. She’s a strega, flying through the skies on a broomstick, but she comes on the twelfth day of Christmas - the night of January 5th - and bears gifts of candies and sweet fruits to good children. Coal or garlic for the bad ones. We - my sister and I - always got clementines.

A contour sketch of two clementines on brown kraft paper. The drawing was done in pencil and outlined with black sharpie.
"Clementines on 'na mappina." Blind contour and sketch, Cassandra Marsillo, 2021.

My grandparents would organize it at their place. On the morning of January 6th, l’Epifania, you open the stocking from la Befana. When I got upset about the fruit I had received instead of candy, my nonni would tell me that, growing up, la Befana would also bring them fresh, juicy, rare fruits like clementines, which they didn’t get to have during the year because they were too expensive or unavailable in their small and remote mountain town. A stark contrast to our holidays: my dad would bring home cases of clementines and my sister and I would sit on the couch on either side of him, dishrags lining our laps, and eat one after the other, until the whole living room smelled of citrus.

La Befana is time. The passage of the year, the shortening of the days, the hope for the future, the light of the moon, the clementine nights in the living room of my childhood. She is mourning and celebration. She is magic. Viva, viva la Befana.

A felt stocking hanging on the knob of a light blue cabinet. The stocking has the name "Cassandra" stitched at the top. It shows the scene of a blonde-haired girl putting her stocking up on the mantle of her fireplace, beside a Christmas tree and cat.
My stocking, made by my Nonna Ida.

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