Christmas in Italy
Several days before Christmas, Italian children go door-to-door singing their favorite Christmas songs. Sometimes musicians will go with the children dressed in pretty red jackets and broad brimmed hats that have red tassels. It’s a lot of fun and very similar to caroling parties in other parts of the world.
On Christmas Eve families light many, many candles to honor the holy “Bambino” or Christ Child. Families gather around the Presepio, a shrine to the Holy Child, and say prayers. After a 24-hour fast, the family sits down to a large, traditional Italian feast.
Christmas day is reserved as a religious event. There are many Masses to attend and prayers.
It isn’t until January 6th that traditional holiday gift-giving takes place. On this night, so the story goes, a kindly old woman, called “La Befana,” brings gifts to children.
La Befana is most often shown as an ugly old woman, but the children of Italy lover her very much.
The Legend of La Befana
Here are two versions of the the La Befana legend.
Many centuries ago, King Herod decreed that the first born male child and each male child born in that year was to be slain. It was his desire to kill the child reported to have been born the new "King." Soldiers rampaged villages throughout the country murdering male children. One mother became so stricken with grief that she was unable to cry nor accept the loss of her son. She looked and looked around her house for her baby son. She became convinced that her child was not dead, but instead lost. She placed all her child’s belongings onto a tablecloth and bundled it at the end to carry it over her shoulder and set out searching from house to house for him.
To this young mother it seemed much time had passed as she searched yet, in only a few days, she came upon a child. Convinced that she had found her lost son, she placed the cloth sack containing all her son’s belongings at the base of the manger where the child laid. The young father gazed at the face of this stranger bearing gifts and wondered about the many years in this old woman’s past. Her face had many lines and her hair was fully grayed.
The child was Jesus Christ and in gratitude to the "OLD" woman’s generosity, He gave the woman a wonderful blessing. One night a year for all eternity, the woman He named "La Befana" for "giver of gifts," would have all the children of the world as her own. On that night, she would be able to visit each one, bringing them clothing and toys. The night is January 5 each year and the morning of January 6, children all over Italy find their stockings filled with sweet curly candy for being very good or a dark piece of coal if they have been bad. During the night of La Befana’s visit, she is hosted by each family with a plate containing broccoli and spice sausage plus a small glass of wine.
In modern time, La Befana is only seen on rare occasions and indeed lives in the imaginations of small children.
The three Kings stopped at La Befana’s house on their way to Bethlehem. After dining with her, they invited her to follow them in their search for the Christ child. She said no since she needed to wash and clean.
After a while she changed her mind, and gathered up some items from her home to give to the Christ child. Alas, she wasn’t able to find the three Kings nor the baby Christ child. She’s been searching ever since. So every January 5th and the morning of January 6th, children all over Italy find their stockings filled with sweet curly candy for being very good or a dark piece of coal if they have been bad.
Buon Natale! Christmas Eve Italian Style
Italian Christmas Cooking: