“Did the broom run out of gas? I’ll go check again,” Ida Ivanovic tells a couple dozen children sitting on the floor, waiting patiently for the arrival of la Befana at the Ciociaro Social Club of Massachusetts on Bridge Street in Newton yesterday. “I know she’s a little old and she walks very slow. I hope she didn’t get lost.”
You might say la Befana is an Italian variation on Santa Claus.
As the Christian gospel of Matthew tells it, “wise men from the east” came to Jerusalem seeking the baby Jesus Christ, the newborn “King of the Jews,” by following a star that they believed signaled his arrival.
The Befana legend inserts a pitstop in which the wise men asked directions from an old woman—la Befana—who was sweeping. She was unable to help them, being unaware of the birth. They invited her to join their search, but she declined because she was too busy with her cleaning. After they had traveled on, la Befana decided to follow them after all, to honor the baby, too, but couldn’t find them or the child.
Instead each year on the Epiphany (Befana is suspected to be a mishearing of the name for the Christian holiday celebrating the revelation of Jesus as divine when the wise men found the infant and gave him gifts) she sets out again, flying her broom across Italy, looking for the baby, stopping at each home to leave gifts for all children.
“She promised herself to love all the kids in the world,” club member Enrico Carrieri tells me earlier.
Lucia DiDuca, one of the organizers of the celebration, explains, “Children would wait and she would come on the 6th of January, the Epiphany, little Christmas,”
“She’s supposed to come on a broom,” Ivanovic says. “She is a good witch.”
“She’s not very attractive,” DiDuca says. “She was old.”
“Poor, too,” Ivanovic adds.
“If you’re good, she might bring you candy or a tangerine. If you were not so good, a potato, charcoal, maybe an onion,” DiDuca says.
“You have to put the socks on the chimney. You leave the empty socks for Befana,” Ivanovic says. “In the night, the Befana comes down the chimney and fills up the socks.”
“We gave her directions,” Ivanovic tells children waiting at the club for La Befana. “I’ll check the front door again.”
And then la Befana was there, arriving via the back of the club. She was an old woman (one of the women from the club in a rubbery mask—with a blinking, light-up nose—that they imported from Italy), wearing a scarf over her head and carrying her broom and a sack of presents. She slowly and carefully made her way to a seat next to a Christmas tree. The children sang songs in Italian, then they lined up for her to give them each a sock full of candies and little toys.
“Originally, nobody received a gift on Christmas. It was only the Befana,” Ivanovic tells me. But that began to change in Italy “maybe 25, 30 years ago,” she says, as Italians began to give presents on Christmas day as well.
“That was according to the economy,” Carrieri says. “People were starting to have more money. The kids are, for the parents, the kings.”
This article was originally published on January 05, 2015.