A strange post-Christmas pilgrimage takes place each year in the hills of northeastern Italy's Le Marche, when thousands of kids flock to a small medieval town called Urbania to sit on the lap of an ugly old witch. On the eve of Jan. 6, La Befana flies down chimneys or through keyholes throughout Italy to have her say over who's been naughty or nice. But that's about all she has in common with Old Saint Nick.
The Epiphany, a national holiday, celebrates the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem. The night before, families leave a glass of wine and some fruit by the fireplace to welcome Befana as she comes to fill stockings hung with care -- candy and small toys for those who deserve it and coal, of course, for those who don't.
"She's a very ugly old woman with a long nose, dressed in a long skirt with a lot of patches and a scarf around her head," says Samuele Sabatini, who organizes the country's biggest Befana celebration for the Urbania chapter of Pro Loco, an Italian group that helps to preserve local culture in small towns. "And she flies on a broomstick."
Like many Christian traditions, Befana has pagan roots, as a good witch who played the role of Mother Nature and was celebrated in December for providing life throughout the year.
The most common telling of the Befana story has the three wise men stopping to ask an old woman for directions on their way to Bethlehem. They invite her to join the party, but she refuses because she has too much sweeping to do. After realizing her mistake, she tries and fails to catch up with the wise men with a bag of treats. On the eve of their arrival she throws herself beneath a tree in despair. One of the branches turns into a magic broom, which she is to ride for eternity in her never-ending search for the baby Jesus.
The Mother of all Children
Sabatini prefers a more optimistic telling of the story.
A princess waits for her prince to return from the Crusades, but he doesn't, and she's left childless. She retreats into the forest, where her pain transforms her into a witch. Jesus takes pity and offers her the chance to be the mother of all children -- by disciplining them with the promise of treats and threat of coal, which is always met with tears, according to people around Urbania.
"This is very beautiful, because it's a love story. It has a bad ending that gives life to a greater love," Sabatini says. "Italian people are very romantic."
Befana has traditionally been poor, giving out things like figs, oranges and onions. The burlap sack she carries symbolizes her ties to local agriculture. She was primarily celebrated in Le Marche, Umbria and Lazio, the regions closely associated with the Papal States where the Epiphany held the most importance.
A National Icon Finally Gets a Home
She has since developed into a national icon, and socks once filled with vegetables are now big stockings that can even be found pre-packaged in toy stores. But in a clever piece of small-town opportunism, Urbania has become something like her official home. Sabatini started the festival 10 years ago, registered a logo, created a Web site and gave La Befana a home.
"Babbo Natale (the Italian Santa) has a house at the North Pole, but nobody ever said where the Befana lived," he says. "So we decided that she lived here in Urbania. And the Befana has liked the location."
Sabatini estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 people, depending on the weather, descend on the quiet town every year from January 2-6 for the festivities. Over 100 Befanas swing from the towers of the main square, juggle and dance in the street or just walk around and greet the guests. All this, of course, begs the quesstion: How does tiny Urbania succeed in finding so many ugly women?
Veronica Sbrocca, one of the prettiest girls in the city, will spend the five days with soot on her face, scarves around her hair and neck and a bulky, dirty dress that reaches down to her ankles. She already knows who's getting the charcoal -- "the children who are always telling bad jokes down the street." Even men are known to dress up.
But the real Befana, the one who will host thousands of kids on her lap come January, was already dressed in a shawl and patchwork dress, and carrying a broom, on the last day of November. She hears requests for everything from new sisters to world peace, along with promises to be good if she'll spare the charcoal this year. That's a bargain she can't make.
"It's right that they have the punishment," she says, lighting a cigarette. "They have to understand that they must be obedient."
Spoken like the true witch of Christmas.