I was doing some cyber shopping the other day and stumbled across a figurine of a xmas character I had never heard of before. Now, I pride myself on being a custodian of REAL xmas lore since it has become such a convoluted and distorted tradition based on both secular / pagan historical traditions and the typical biblical traditions.
The Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6 is a national holiday in Italy. This celebration is tied very closely to Christmas and the legend of La Befana. Who is La Befana you ask? Well let me tell you about this weird and rather creepy myth.
La Befana is actually a witch that, according to the story, arrives on her broomstick on the night of January 5 and fills the stockings of good children with toys and sweets and lumps of coal for the bad ones. Why you ask? Well, According to legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger, as in the biblical story of the birth of christ, they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she refused stating that she was simply too busy. Later a travelling shepherd also asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and changed her mind, as women tend to do, and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd after all. the story gets stranger still. She decided to take gifts for the christ child that had originally belonged to her deceased child. Legend has it that she got inextricably lost and never found the manger. She has traveled the globe since then in the hopes that eventually she will find the christ child.
The origins of La Befana actually go back farther, as most xmas holiday traditions do, to the Roman’s pagan festival of Saturnalia, a one or two week festival starting just before the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their augers read by an old crone. Many pagan traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations when Christianity became main stream. La Befana was a good substitute for the old woman who read the augers. The saying augur originated with this practice, too, as it was common to wish someone good augers.
Pretty weird huh? Never underestimate the power of a strange legend or custom. Happy Holidays!