East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

La Befana


In the Italian tradition, la Befana is an old hag, a witch-like character that, on the night between the 5th and the 6th of January – what’s known as Twelfth Night elsewhere – flies around on her broomstick and brings small gifts to children… candies and small toys for the nice ones, coal for the naughty ones.


Harking back to pagan traditions and the Roman Saturnalia, La Befana is therefore like a low-budget, working-class or peasant Santa Claus alternative – she too fills stockings, but her gifts are usually small, cheap and of a very earthy and practical nature: candies, maybe a scarf or a pair of socks, small toys, maybe a paperback book or a comic book. Sweets retailers and supermarkets carry packs of sugar-candy “coal” for the occasion.

Back in the early 20th century, la Befana (who had been fully endorsed by the Fascist Regime, quite ironically) could fill a kid’s stockings with tangerines, chocolates or cookies. The Befana gifts are pocket-sized by default. She’s the poor-man’s Santa Claus stand in.
And despite her (involuntary) meddling with the fascists, I like her very much1.

In my family, we were in the habit of exchanging gifts on the evening of the 5th of January – simply because my mother was born on the 7th of January, and so we collapsed the two celebrations together.

Now that my mother is no longer with us, I keep making season’s gifts to my brother – and to some friends – chartering la Befana2.

Sometimes they get back at me.
This year’s twelfth night stocking was filled with five (5!) books.

51DHEESMHZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Night Train to Turkistan, by Stuart Stevens.
Subtitled Modern Adventures Along China’s Ancient Silk Road, the book relates an attempt by the author at retracing the original route followed by Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart. The results are not as expected.
The author went on to work on the series Northern Exposure and on the political campaign for the election of Mitt Romney. Weird, what?
This is another good entry in my collection of books about the Silk Road and the travelers thereof.
I got this in hardcopy – and I’ll have to find some space on my Silk Road shelf.

51-hKDDro8L._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_Guy Haley’s Champion of Mars is a cheap Kindle novel set – you guessed it – on Mars, and that apparently plays both the hard-sf game of The Martian and the muscular sword & planet game of John Carter.
It might be fun.
Incidentally – the cover of the ebook was changed to tie-in with Ridley Scott‘s movie… a pity, as the one shown here was much more intriguing.

51qOsdpvNxL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_The Green Gods, by Nathalie Henneberg, is a reprint of a dying-Earth style of novel by a French writer, published originally in 1961.
I like to keep my reading as multicultural as possible, and this work, translated by C.J. Cherryh (one of my favorite SF writers) intrigues me a lot.
The ebook version is just what the doctor ordered – and I love the cover art.
I am grateful to the person that picked it from my wishlist.

The-Builders-Daniel-Polansky-smallDaniel Polansky’s The Builders is a book I’ve heard marvels about – and I must have mentioned it to my brother.
The idea of a gritty, hard-hitting fantasy novel using a cast of antropomorphic animals a-la Brian Jacques is rather intriguing – and I’m always happy to chance upon some original sword & sorcery.
I have great expectations for this novel – as I have for the others.

51S8LWBt5XL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_And finally, and unexpectedly, Christopher Paul Carey’s Exiles of Kho, which is an apocryphal story in the Khokarsa/Opar series created by the late lamented P.J. Farmer, himself taking inspiration from the original Tarzan novels. So, Burroughs-esque action and thrills, a strong female lead and the ancient lost past of the Dark Continent.
This one is going to be fun.

All this, a small packet of brandy-filled chocolates and a pack of biscuits with a pirate woman on the packaging is what the Befana pushed in my stocking this year.
I guess I was not so terribly naughty after all.

  1. as I was searching for images for this post, I chanced on a number of on-line articles about how the Befana is a scary character – because she’s old and ugly – that should be removed from the children’s experience, or at least “toned down”. Also, apparently the old hag is taking upon herself the parental responsibility of disciplining naughty kids – another no-no.
    I find all this very saddening. 
  2. making gifts on the 5th of January also gives you ten days to see what people gave you for Christmas, and reciprocate in kind. 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “La Befana

  1. In my Eastern corner of Italy, la Befana is a recent addition – the old lady with the gifts being the much sweeter Santa Lucia. Still, la Befana made an appearance during my childhood as a mysterious and rather stern disciplinarian… I can report I grew up without any lasting trauma.
    Recently I was much amused to discover that my small Piedmontese godson, who doesn’t yet know his Santa Lucia presents come from me, told his schoolmates that “Santa Lucia is an old lady like la Befana – but not quite.” And that Saint Lucia visits him – and him alone – because she is in cahoots with his godmother…


  2. I received tons of tangerines, along the years, and some torroncini here and there.
    Also, my grandma (and my mom) used to hint la Befana and Santa Claus would not only bring coal to the bad children, but also onions!
    (and you can’t imagine the face my cousin’s son made the year my grandma gave him a stocking with actual coal in it for the Epiphany!)


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.