What is it that attracts mothers in Italy to the spirit of the Christmas witch, the Befana witch?
Why is it that so many mothers wrap themselves in a black shawl and, cackling at their offspring, present an image of an old hag, one whose femininity has been lost or destroyed by the ravages of time and an unhappy life. Is this the reality for aging motherhood in Italy, or is there some different story? Is it real or is it fake?
We visitors watch, as strangers, the habits and traditions of Christmas in Italy, and particularly of the womenfolk, the mothers. Maybe, it is the once in a year opportunity to laugh when disciplining the children, to give horrid little presents that let the ‘venom’ out in an acceptable way.
For 364 days of the year, mothers pretend that their children are the princes and princesses of fairyland and that the temper tantrums and bad behaviour of the children are solely representations of the failures of their fathers/husbands to provide a perfect family environment.
Then, for just one day, the mother, the Befana witch, can ‘dip her finger in the bile and share it with a smile’ casting a old stick or lumps of dark candy, representing coal, and bitter vegetables just to say that, ‘I am fed up – eat this’.
This is the joyous event of Epiphany the manifestation of divinity that has in Italy become the celebration of the Befana witch (shortened from Epifania) commencing on the night of January 5 before the feast the following day. The tradition declares that children will receive candy if they have been good all year (so there should be a dearth of candy) and coal if they have been bad (so the coal mines should re-open to meet the great demand from this festival).
The witch classically rides on a broomstick and is covered in soot from the chimney (just like Santa Claus who somehow manages to stay clean through this chimney entrance). It seems that the broomstick has two practical advantages, it is not just a means of travel from rooftop to rooftop, but also enables her to clean the floors of every house she visits, and this while also leaving the sock filled with ‘rewards’ for the children.
Yet it is a two-way street (one must not forget the power of the Befana witch), she is rewarded by the families, who traditionally leave out a glass of wine and a few local snacks.
It seems that Befana witch has a great tolerance for alcohol as she visits thousands of households and somehow still navigates her broomstick through the tortuous alleys of medieval (or is it evil) towns around the country. Fortunately the local police choose to turn a blind eye to any broomsticks that may exceed the speed limit or be seen flying in a dangerous manner.
One could view this gift for the mother (witch though she may be) from a different perspective; she has spent the year avoiding the sins of alcohol so often visited by her husband, brothers, father and their male friends, so finds an excuse to down a glass of grappa at the cost of a few candies and retain her righteousness.
Another outcome of this tradition of the Befana witch is the universal Italian preference for garlic and onion as taste sensations in most culinary creations. The Befana tradition calls for bitter vegetables such as garlic to be in every stocking of a child who has misbehaved. Obviously, every Befana gifted sock in Italy should be overflowing with garlic and onions that, of course, must be consumed by the child, and it appears to be habit forming.
We wait now for the 7th when normality returns and the little ‘brats’ become princesses and princes again in the dreams of their mothers. Oh for a year of Befana!