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The old woman who tells children about the afterlife

Investigation on the Befana, the only female presence in our winter holidays

It's ugly, it is old and it’s ragged. Furthermore, it flies in the sky on a broom, just like witches, even if we tried to save her from this suspicion by turning her broom in the opposite direction to that of witches. But we have to be satisfied: this disturbing character is the only female presence in the winter holidays, those festivals related, for Christians, to Christmas, and the distribution of gifts to children, which take place during the period of the winter solstice, i.e. from All Saints day until  January 6th , when the days get ever shorter, and the darkness seems to swallow up daily life and bring with it the shadows of the dead.

The Befana which today has become synonymous with an ugly old woman, is a lexical corruption of the word Epiphany, which means "apparition" and figuratively "the apparition of a deity ', ie the presentation of Jesus to the pagans, which thus takes us back to the arrival of the magi from the East.

The Feast of the Three Kings which starts off January is a festival of light, of the star, of the '"apparition", and is tied to the theme of giving: the three wise men arriving from the East bring precious gifts to the Holy Child. This festival consists of two elements - light and giving – which appear in all the festivals that are held in the winter solstice period, elements that were already present in the pagan festivals for the Sol Invictus , linked to the rebirth of light. The Epiphany took place on the twelfth night after the winter solstice, at a time when the death and rebirth of nature was celebrated. The appearance of old age, the ragged clothes, are therefore symbols of the old year, of nature dead and in need of rebirth. A tale also exists - not a particularly old one – which aims to find a place in Christian tradition for this figure: the three Kings were said to have been heading towards Bethlehem, when they turned to an old lady to ask her directions of which road to take. They are also said to have tried to convince her to follow them in order to go to worship the little king. But the women is said to have refused. Later, repenting of her decision, she is said to have set off with a basket of sweets but without finding either the Magi or the Baby, she presented the sweets to every child she met on the way. Since then, in order to be forgiven, the old lady has continued to give gifts to children.

But the tale is not convincing: the aged Befana has always had an unsettling aspect to her, this is confirmed by the fact that she punishes naughty children by bringing them coal, unlike  the Child Jesus or Santa Claus - Santa Klaus- figures who are entirely positive and do not plan to give negative" gifts "

The night of the Epiphany – that is, the "Twelfth Night" - was considered in the countryside to be a magical night, in which animals can speak, in the stables and in the woods. In many popular festivals on the January the 6th, instead of the three kings, the Befana appears, depicted as a puppet which is sometimes also burned, as is done with symbols of the old year. In some Catholic countries - such as Spain and some regions of Italy –it is the Magi who bring gifts to children, and not the Befana. In others, it is the Child Jesus who brings the most important presents at Christmas, and it is the Befana who gives small gifts on the 6th of January, or perhaps sometimes even coal. In any case, she has been pushed into a secondary role in comparison to her great rival, the Child Jesus, who in the 20th century due to secularization has in effect been transformed into Father Christmas, so much so that today La Befana is increasingly losing importance, outclassed by her secular rival, Father Christmas.

Father Christmas, in his current form is, in fact, a modern creation, as is the belief that he lives in Greenland and rides a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He is dressed in scarlet like kings, boots and fur evoke the winter and - the only way in which he resembles La Befana – he is old.

As Levi-Strauss explains in his famous essay, Santa Claus tortured , he is not a mythical or legendary character, since any narrative material about his exploits is lacking, rather he is established once and for all in his appearance on the basis of a unique function and periodic return. He belongs rather to the family of the gods”

Levi-Strauss does not say it, but the same thing could be written about the Befana. We are speaking about minor divinities specifically linked to an age group, childhood. A rite of passage in the transition to adulthood is, in fact, the revelation about the non-existence of Santa Claus and the Befana. But – writes the great anthropologist -  behind this contrast between children who believe and adults who know, lies a more fundamental contrast, that between the living and the dead

In fact, in this period of the year we notice that the religious protagonists are all young - from St. Nicholas, the young bishop of Myra from whom stockings and fireplaces are derived, which in many countries, bear the gifts on December 6, to the Child Jesus and up until the Magi - but, when they become mythical characters such as Santa Claus and the Befana they become old. Aged like death.

In many local traditions, beginning with the feast of All Saints, the now famous Halloween, children dress up as skeletons and ghosts and harass adults only setting them free after receiving donations of money or sweets. This is because, at this critical time of the year, when the night threatens the day, it is feared that the dead are able to come back to torment the living. With the return of light, the dead will go away, but in the meantime we must keep them quiet with gifts and favours. The feasts of Christmas and Epiphany are festivals that celebrate the return of light, and they therefore force the dead to take leave. In these days, you can also celebrate the dead, but who can represent them in the world of the living? Lévi-Strauss replies that it is children who take the role of the dead, as they are not yet fully incorporated into human society, they are the "others" in comparison to the living adults: "The feast of the dead is essentially the celebration of the others, because the fact of being an other is the first close-up image that we can use to represent death. "

It is we adults who bring the gifts to children, but we like them to believe, at least for a few years, that the gifts arrive from the beyond, brought to them by the Child Jesus or Santa Claus or the Befana.

We do not know if La Befana, and her colleague Father Christmas, the images of the dead who come to disturb the living during the autumn, and which then retreat with the return of the light, bringing gifts in return to children, are really - as the French anthropologist writes - "the strongest bastion, and one of the most active foci of paganism in modern man." Lévi-Strauss wrote in the early fifties, when consumerism was a distant reality: now that we are aware of the consumerist madness which rages between Christmas and the Epiphany we are led to think that it is this, not the innocent mythical figures of Santa Claus and La Befana, that represents the advanced threshold of paganism.

Today it is easier to think that the meaning of life and death - as well as the existence of the afterlife - is transmitted at least through these two old myths: for many children, this will be their only experience of the "afterlife" in the course of their education. And their existence alongside the episodes of the Sacred Scripture or of the lives of saints continues to show a link to Christian tradition. Christmas is not only the celebration of the illuminated tree and of  Father Christmas, the Epiphany is not only the comic Befana, who brings sweets and gifts: the pagan splitting of the Christian holidays helps to keep them alive, and we can hope that some of these children, as they grow up, will try to understand their history better. And both of them show, in their names, traces of Christian tradition: Christmas, and thus the birth of Jesus, for Father Christmas, and Epiphany hidden in the name of the Befana, and therefore the Magi and, again, the Child.

Anyway, it is a better story than the glorification of purchase as an end in itself. It is a mysterious story that makes you think that there is an existence "other" than our own.




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 20, 2019