Sunday Inspiration: The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
—Howard Thurman

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La Befana: Italy’s Christmastide Gift-giver

la_befanaTomorrow is the twelfth day of Christmas. That means that tomorrow night, Epiphany Eve, marks the yearly journey of La Befana, Italy’s answer to Santa Claus, as she brings gifts to children far and wide.

Where did La Befana (or simply Befana) come from? One possibility is that her origins lie in the ancient Roman goddess Strina or Strenia, who was associated with new-year gift-giving. Both Strina and La Befana are said to give gifts of figs, dates, and honey. Both, also, were/are celebrated with noisy, rowdy observances.

In folklore, La Befana showed hospitality to the three wise men on their journey to visit the Christ Child (which is the point of the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6). She passed up, however, the opportunity to see him for herself, protesting that she had too much housework to do. Later, she had a change of heart and tried to catch up with the wise men. Legend says she is still searching for the infant Jesus to this day.

La Befana’s name is a corruption of Epifania, the Italian rendition of Epiphany.

Like Santa Claus, La Befana enters houses via the chimney in order to fill children’s stockings with candy and presents of they are good or with a lump of coal if they were bad. She may be somewhat more lenient than Santa, however, because misbehaving children might find dark candy in their stocking. In Sicily, however, they might just find a stick!

Despite her Santa-like attributes, La Befana is often depicted in a decidedly witchy manner. She is said to look like an old lady riding a broomstick and wrapped in a black shawl. Like Clement Moore’s Saint Nicholas, she is covered in soot because of her chimney-based entrances. She is a friendly witch, however, often smiling as she carries her bag of treats.

Also unlike Santa, La Befana has a domestic streak. She might, in fact, sweep the floor before she leaves–interpreted by some to be sweeping away the problems of the old year.

Finally, this being Italy, it is traditional to leave her not milk and cookies but a glass of wine and a few morsels of food.

Inspiration: Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God’s heaven, a star’s light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God’s Angels in heaven to sing
He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

Kindly Elves

The most recent development in elf-lore is to see them neither as tall, powerful, benevolent beings as in Norse mythology, nor as tall, powerful, sinister beings, as in later Germanic folklore, but rather as small, shy beings who are usually quite helpful to humans. Although they may still be mischievous, they are rarely malicious.

Germanic “House Elves”

One early depiction of this sort of elf is in 1812, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner, known to English readers as the story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” In this story, two tiny naked imps help the shoemaker with his work. When he seeks to reward them with clothing, however, they are so delighted that they run away and are never seen again.

It is debatable whether these Wichtelmänner should be interpreted as elves at all or rather as some other sort of fairy being: kobolds, dwarves, or brownies, for example. The word, itself a diminutive of German Wicht, “wight,” which might better be translated imp or goblin. They seem to have a bit in common with the nisse or tomte of Scandinavia, kindly, diminutive sprites similar to the hobs and brownies of England. At any rate, due to the common translation, they have entered the constellation of images to which English-speakers attach the word “elf.”

Dobby and Company

The depiction of tiny, helpful, industrious elves certainly influenced the house elves of Harry Potter more than either of the previous types. There is even a mythological basis for their aversion to conventional clothing. In English folklore, brownies are a type of sprite that secretly tidy up the house and perhaps do other domestic chores. It is said that they always dress in rags, but are deeply offended if ever anyone offered them more suitable clothing to wear. Do this, the legends say, and they will promptly disappear, never to return.

These domestic sprites are often attached to a particular family. In fact, they are believed by some to be the departed spirits of an ancestor. Such is the case, for example, of the domovoi of Slavic folklore. They may be especially associated with the hearth.

In addition to the nisse and tomte already discussed, other iterations of this sort of “elf” are the Spanish duende, the Irish grogan, the Welsh bwbach. There are also an assortment of faery creatures involved in a number of “working-class” functions: the vazila of Russia takes care of horses; the bodachan buachailleen of the Scottish highlands is a herdsman while his neighbor, the bodachan sabhaill, inhabits the barn; the kilmouli of the Border region is a spinner.

Christmas Elves

Louisa May Alcott first mentioned elves in a Christmas story in 1856. Sadly, the publisher declined to print the story. A year later, however, Harper’s Weekly published an anonymous poem titled “The Wonders of Santa Claus,” which begins:

Beyond the ocean many a mile,
And many a year ago,
There lived a wonderful queer old men [sic]
In a wonderful house of snow;
And every little boy and girl,
As Christmas Eves arrive,
No doubt will be very glad to hear,
The old man is still alive.

In his house upon the top of a hill,
And almost out of sight,
He keeps a great many elves at work,
All working with all their might,
To make a million of pretty things,
Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys,
To fill the stockings, hung up you know
By the little girls and boys.

It would be a capital treat be sure,
A glimpse of his wondrous ‘shop;
But the queer old man when a stranger comes,
Orders every elf to stop;
And the house, and work, and workmen all
Instantly take a twist,
And just you may think you are there,
They are off in a frosty mist.

Thus, Christmas elves appear on the scene only thirty-five years after Clement Moore gave us the “canonical” depiction of Santa Claus himself. The depiction of these beings varies from story to story, but they are almost always shorter than normal humans. By temperament, they are cheerful and jolly—as befits Santa’s helpers. They usually dress in bright, festive colors.

Christmas in the Reich

Matt Soniak has posted a fascinating article at Mental Floss about Christmas in Nazi Germany.

Wherever possible, in both public and private spheres, Christmas’ religious aspects were de-emphasized and replaced with nationalistic and pagan symbolism. “People’s Christmas trees,” were erected in many towns and cities with the traditional star topper replaced by swastikas, Germanic “sun wheels” or the Nordic “sig runes” used by the SS as their insignia.

These trees became the subject of numerous Christmas carols rewritten with no reference to Christ or religion, as well as the focal point of Christmas celebrations, events and activities organized by like the Hitler Youth, the League of German Women and the German Workers Front and the state. The Nazi Party organized massive celebrations across the country where the Hitler Youth reenacted solstice rituals and soldiers swore “oaths of fire” before huge bonfires. Joseph Goebbels often appeared at celebrations like this at the tree in Berlin, handing out presents to children like a jackbooted Santa Claus.

Santa, of course, still existed in Nazified form, as someone had to bring gifts to good National Socialist children. Instead of St. Nick in the red robe of a bishop, though, he came in the form of the Norse god Odin, riding around the planet on a white horse to announce the coming of the winter solstice. Presents were still exchanged among families, friends and co-worker, sometimes with a depraved twist: the special Yule lanterns that SS leader Heinrich Himmler handed out as gifts to his officers were made by the inmates at the Dachau concentration camp.