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.

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NORAD’s Annual Santa-tracking Mission

I found it delightful that NORAD (actually, CONAD, its predecessor) first started tracking Santa on Christmas Eve because of a misprint in a Sears Roebuck newspaper ad.

That day, Shoup would later learn, a local newspaper ran a Sears Roebuck ad inviting kids to contact Santa.

“Hey Kiddies!” the ad read. “Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.” The ad listed Santa’s direct line, but the number in the copy was off by a digit. Instead of connecting to the special line Sears set up with a Santa impersonator, kids wound up calling a secret air defense emergency number.

After a few more Santa-related calls, Shoup pulled a few airmen aside and gave them a special assignment. They would answer the phone and give callers—barring the Pentagon, we assume—Santa’s current location as they “tracked” him on their radar.

Ho ho ho, indeed!

The International University of Santa Claus

Really, there is one!

Helmed by Tim Connaghan—who has suited up in the big guy’s red suit for the past 45 years and is an inductee in the International Santa Hall of Fame—more than 2500 Santa wannabes have earned their diplomas. But what prerequisites does Santa Claus need to graduate? Here’s a snapshot of 11 workshops covered in the IUSC’s official textbook,“Behind the Red Suit—The Business of Santa.”