Outside of Italy, January 6th is generally held to be the most depressing day of the year, back to work, the thought of no official respite till Easter’s Bank holidays; if only Italy’s most famous witch La Befana, having already beaten Italian Catholicism into accepting her pagan broomstick ride over the country delivering sweeties to good children, could sprinkle a little of her magic throughout the world.
ItalyHeritage has the comprehensive summary of the history of Italy’s most generous witch, but delve into Shakespeare and his Twelfth Night for another insight into how magical the night preceding Epiphany was and think of families long ago looking into fires, seeking out omens for their agricultural yield in the year ahead. Punishment, expectations and rewards were moulded into mythological and then Christian figures that softened worries of famine. La Befana bought rewards to both the good and bad, the benevolent coal she left for naughty children meant a warm fire for them to sit beside and fertiliser for their families’ fields.
Having a 2 year old meant that this year we could join in Bascianella’s La Befana fun, scrabble for sweets that were thrown by 3 elegant but mesmerising silent interpretations of my favourite witch. Listen to toddler “oohs!” and “arghs!” at the gift stockings, brimming full of gelatine sucky sweeties handed out from enormous hessian sacks by the Befane (which possibly silently screamed to parents “fillings”, “sugar ruuuuuuuuuuuuush” and “no sleep tonight!”). We could march round the village behind a big bass drum and solo accordion player down to the village bocce/social club where we got to gobble down the very best home-made sausage pizza and of course pizza with French fries for the kids – (whoever said that Italians were snobby about pizza toppings hasn’t yet experienced their own version of this wicked favourite). Us parents and grandparents got to drink the very best soft honey & fruity home-made wines from grandfathers’ cantine and dance polka and other folk tunes played by 3 accordion players and an acoustic guitar. Their melodic rhythms got the shyest and only bi-lingual toddler in the village clapping along and wanting to dance. I have a feeling that the accordion players and dancing reminded him of the dancing scene in The Snowman that we’d been watching earlier in the morning.
I love that the witch La Befana is unglamorous, ugly and wears rags and patched clothes; after watching a Christmas special of Family Guy and seeing Father Christmas at work in a nuclear factory with his jaded elves in order to try and meet orders, La Befana rocks in her human touch. Whilst laying with my little boy to coerce him to sleep after a night dancing with witches, I compared this to an extended family Christmas shared back in the UK, grown-ups playing catch-up, children bamboozled into silence and sleep from a glut of toys and knew which of the two was more child-friendly and we enjoyed more .
Photographs © Sam Dunham, Lucciola.me, all rights reserved