Gifts from the witch

by Pierluigi Mennitti

High. About elites (Issue I/2015)

In the capital of Catholicism, there is one festival that is almost more important than Christmas Eve. It is the day that the disheveled witch riding a broom is celebrated across Rome. Her name is Befana and she enters Italian homes through chimneys. She fills the stockings of well-behaved children with sweets and presents but the naughty ones get pieces of coal. She arrives on the night of January 6, which in classic Italian unpunctuality is a month later than the German St. Nicholas. Her name is based on that of the Christian holiday Epifania, the Epiphany.

On this day, the witch Befana wanted to visit the baby Jesus, got lost enroute and has been flying around ever since. From Rome, the tradition spread throughout Italy. As many as a thousand years before Christ, farmers honoured a female figure, hoping for a good harvest in the new year. Then, in the Middle Ages, the Church appropriated this pagan festival and laced it with a moral about good and evil: candy or coal, reward or punishment. Even today, children are wake up before sunrise to check their stockings.

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