DeFlip Side #53: La Befana, The Christmas Crone

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Welcome everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis, and it’s time once again to celebrate a very DeFlip Side Christmas.

I’ve spent many a Yuletide season around here talking about the big guy, the man in red, jolly old St. Nick, examining his origins, both mythical and historical. I find the topic of Santa Claus fascinating and can (and often do) go on endlessly about him. But even I must admit, Santa Claus isn’t the only game in town—mythologically speaking—when it comes to the personification of the Christmas celebration. Far from it.

In just about every European and Near Eastern tradition there’s another figure, with much deeper folkloric roots, which trumps Nicholas of Myra. She is the Befana, the Christmas Crone. And if you’re like the average American, you’ve never heard of her.

Actually, there’s a good reason for that. For Christians in the United States, holiday festivities focus primarily on the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas, culminating with the celebration of the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But in many older Christian traditions, most especially in the various Orthodox faiths, December 25 is not that big a deal. The real celebration comes on January 6, better known as the Epiphany.

The Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi—you know, those three wise men bearing gold, myrrh and frankincense—to the manger of Christ, and the start of Jesus’ manifestation of himself as God. Hence the nativities you see parked along side most Christmas trees. Epiphany celebrations have been going on as far back as the 13th century and are especially popular in Italy.

So where does the Befana come in? Well, according to legend, while en route to the manger, the three wise men stopped off at a small cottage to ask for directions. An old woman holding a broom answered, wary of the three strangers. Though she couldn’t give them the directions they sought, the wise men invited the crone to join them on their journey. But the old woman declined, saying she had much too much housework to do.

Soon after they were gone, though, the woman felt that she had made a terrible mistake and ran out to find them. But even after searching for many hours she remained unsuccessful. Lamenting her missed opportunity, she soon stopped every child she saw to give them a treat, in hopes that one of them would be the Christ child.

Ever since them, on the eve of the Epiphany, the woman sets out on her broom in search of Christ, visiting children, leaving treats in their stocking if they’ve been good, and coal if they’ve been bad. Sound familiar? She has since become known as the Befana, which is derived from “epiphana,” the Greek word for epiphany.

There is another, more biblical origin that starts with King Herod’s declaration to slay all male children born in the year of Christ’s birth. One grief-stricken mother, unable to accept the loss of her son, became convinced that her child was not dead, but lost. She bundled all of her child’s things into a tablecloth and searched from house to house.

She soon came upon a child. Convinced it was her lost son, she placed the sack at the base of the manger where the child lay. The child was, of course, Jesus Christ. In gratitude to the woman’s generosity, Christ blessed her as La Befana, giver of gifts, and said that for one night a year for all eternity, she would have all the children of the world as her own, to visit with clothing and toys.

As quaint and heartening as these stories might be, they are just Christian contrivances that were designed to co-opt much older pagan mythic archetypes that the church knew the populace wouldn’t willingly part with. In this case, the crone.

The crone is one aspect of the ancient Triple Goddess—creator and destroyer of all life—representative of the three stages of a female’s life: Virgin, Mother and Crone. The crone became especially important in year-end celebrations, as she represented the end of a woman’s childbearing years—in essence, the coming of winter and death.

In European folklore, the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany are when crones, or witches, are most active, especially on the twelfth night, the Epiphany, which is considered a magic night.

People were traditionally wary of the crone, since she knew lots of magic and could really mess you up if she had a mind to. She’s a folkloric fixture that turns up everywhere. Think of the witch that captured Hansel and Gretel; or how about the Wicked Witch of the West?

But my favorite version comes out of the Slavic and Eastern European traditions, where the crone is better know as Baba Yaga, who flies around in a mortar, pushing herself along with a pestle. She is said to lure children with her dancing house. And just how does her house dance, you ask? Why on chicken feet, of course! In other versions, it’s Baba Yaga herself that has a chicken’s foot. And if that seems especially twisted or outrageous, just where do you think we get the name Mother Goose? That’s why mythology is so damn cool. Circles within circles within circles.

But Baba Yaga does far more than torment and dine on wayward children. She is also the keeper of the waters of life and death, which can quicken life within to womb, or set a soul free from a corpse to be reborn.

Now before you get on your Christian soapbox and declare that these myths have nothing to do with the modern celebration of Epiphany, consider this:

The Epiphany often includes purifying rites and benedictions with water. Water prepared on the eve of the Epiphany is said to have sacred properties that can ward off evil spirits. So the traditions linger, even if their origins are lost.

These days the Befana is seen mainly as a benevolent witch, who visits in much the same manner as Santa, coming down the chimney or in through the keyhole. She’s especially popular in Italy, which is how I first learned about her, thanks to my Italian heritage.

So it is in a spirit of deference to the Crone of Christmas that I sign of this year by wishing a Buon Natale to all, and to all a buonanotte!

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