Monday, October 31, 2005

Entirely the Wrong Witch

La Befana, Babbo Natale, and the shifting focus of Christmas traditions in Italy

It is around 9pm on the last day of October, All Hallow's Eve. Back home, in America, it is Halloween, and everywhere kids are looking forward to the end of the school day when they can dress up and hit the streets to fill pillowcases with candy begged from the neighbors.

Here in Venice, it is simply October 31, the day before the Feast of All Saints. In Italy, the time to play dress-up isn't for another four months and the moveable feast of Carnevale, that Fat Tuesday of partying before Ash Wednesday ushers in the 40 austere days of Lent.

So why is it that the pizzeria I just left is packed with babbling kids, their faces smeared with makeup, pointy hats on their heads and gauzy or silky capes tied at their necks? Why did the marble fountainhead on Campo Santa Maria Formosa have a gaggle of costumed youths sitting upon it, laughing and eating candy?

What, in short, the Hell is Halloween doing in the very capital of Carnevale?

(Before you get confused: Yes, this story really is about Christmas; Halloween is just the setup.)

American Halloween, Italian-style

I should have been ready for it, really. I knew it was coming. I saw the signs. The stalls on Riva degli Schiavoni that hawk Italian team soccer shirts and knock-off designer scarves to tourists last week added black or orange hats stacked like felt traffic cones.

Window decorations across Northern Italy have increasingly featured pumpkins, or cardboard strings of bats and skeletons stretched over the display of pastries. Last night, Rete 4 did a mini-marathon of Simpsons Halloween episodes, and I saw from the ads that tonight most TV channels were planning to screen horror movies.

Chalk another one up to American cultural imperialism. It's often not as blatant as McDonalds and the bad Hollywood action movies upon which most Euro-snobs fixate when denigrating our country's overweening influence on the modern world. Sometimes it's a subtle as changes to the holiday traditions of youth, and that's what I find so bone-chillingly terrifying.

For the first time in years, I'm genuinely frightened this Halloween night. I feel witness to the ending of a cultural era, and as a lapsed anthropologist, I can't say I'm happy about it. I'm also ticked off that they've got entirely the wrong witch in mind, and the wrong holiday in which to stick her.

Various holiday traditions from the US and Italy are increasingly becoming jumbled, their meanings disappearing. It's like culture by Cuisinart. Just as Italy already has its own holiday for wearing masks (Carnevale), it has a holiday for witches, too. Only it's not on October 31. It's on January 6.

The witch of Italy is a good witch, not a broomstick-riding hag, and she brings—or at least brought—sweets and presents to Italian children on the day of the Epiphany. That’s why this is not a story of Halloween in Venice in 2005, but rather of the day after New Year's in Rome in 2002.

The Piazza Navona Christmas Market

The Christmas market on Piazza Navona has almost entirely gone over to the generic stalls, games, and toys/candy trailers common to every outdoor fair in Italy.

The artisan stalls offering handmade presepio (Nativity scene) figures now make up perhaps only one-fifth of the market. There's still a carousel in the center, and plenty of the toss-the-ring-fail-to-win-the-stuffed-teddy third rate carny games ranged around it.

But most of the trailers and carts in between hawk either two dozen variations on the peanut brittle theme, mass-produced toys and trinkets, ciambelle (donuts) the size of dinner plates, cheap knock-off jerseys of famous soccer players and other calcio memorabilia, or Hollywood-induced Santa-Christmas paraphernalia.

However, a few stands at the north end still carry La Befana, the Christmas Witch.

The Korporate Kris Kringle

Now we all know that Hollywood long ago corrupted the kindly old Kris Kingle/St. Nicholas icon to create the treacly, ultra-capitalist "Santa Claus," who has become so commercial that, though legal loopholes and contractual obligations, he can easily be replaced with Tim Allen (The Santa Clause) or Whoppi Goldberg (Call Me Claus) to suit the needs of Disney or Ted Turner, respectively.

This commercialization has been a long process. The Salvation Army has prostituted Santa on street corners for decades—for highly laudable goals and worthy charities, obviously, but no matter how you look at it, this paramilitary Christian organization has in point of fact turned the Santa image into a street beggar, a symbol of cash flow, and that's what I'm talking about here.

Even the kindly Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street is, in fact, no more than the Macy's Santa, shilling for a department store—though the movie is careful not to ascribe to him any miraculous powers or actually answer the question of whether he is, in fact, Santa Claus.

(The sacks of letters that arrive in the courtroom at the 11th hour are, when it comes down to it, just a happy coincidence brought on by a self-serving postal employee, and even the judge accepts them as proof merely to escape a sticky political situation and selfishly ensure his own position. Seriously. Watch it again: It's an astoundingly depressing movie.)

This presents-under-the-tree American Santa Claus has been successfully exported all over the world and has in the process more or less obliterated many local customs, culture, and traditions—which is of course exactly what the French are always griping we Americans do.

La Befana: The Italian Christmas Witch

In Italy, La Befana, the Christmas Witch, used to bring Italian children their presents, leaving them in stockings hung on the fireplace on the day of the Epiphany, January 6. This makes perfect sense, as that's when the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem with their offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—which collectively still hold the title of Least Appropriate Infant Gifts Ever.

These days it's Babbo Natale ("Daddy Christmas")—that red-robed chap with a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly—who leaves wrapped gifts under a Teutonic evergreen in living rooms across Italy, just like they've seen done in countless schlocky American films.

La Befana may show up, belatedly, 12 days later to stuff some candy into the hearth stockings along with, perhaps, the Italian equivalent of a lump of coal: a small bundle of twigs, symbolic of the whipping the mischievous youngsters undoubtedly deserve for some infraction they got away with in the previous year.

It's interesting that, although she's lost the majority of her Christmas role (though she's still associated with the season) the Christmas Witch has reverted to the heart of her identity: the noun of her being, rather than the adjective. Santa may have horned in on her territory and stolen her job, but La Befana is still a witch.

Sweep away your Troubles

La Bafana's Christmas gift-giving role has been greatly reduced, at least in this jaded big city. She's now sold mainly as a scaccia guai, one who "chases away troubles" with her handy broom.
The broom has long been tied into the mythology of witches, and not just as a means of transportation. It’s also been one of the most useful methods for keeping witches away.

In many European cultures, a witch's primary weakness is that she cannot help but stop to count objects (or to untie knots; we still have an echo of this in many personal "my grandma's old house was haunted" ghost stories, which often feature the poltergeist fiddling with boot laces and the like).

One way to escape a pursuing witch is to toss beans on the ground behind you. Cursing, she has to stop to count them—and unlike Rain Man with his toothpicks, she has to go on a bean-by-bean basis. Similarly, the age-old method to protect your home from witch access—before electronic security systems--was to leave a broom propped against the doorjamb.

The witch arriving in the dead of night to cast a spell on you is foiled when she has to stop and count the broom bristles, which are so numerous and (in traditional brooms actually made from twigs of the broom plant) so crooked she keeps loosing count and never gets around to committing the witchcraft.
Seriously. There are still tons of little towns, especially in Southern Italy, and especially at this time of year, where you can wander the whitewashed alleyways and see a Home Security Broom prudently propped at every single front door.

Obviously this is all assuming the witch is evil, whereas our Befana is clearly a good egg. It's no good looking for too much consistency in witch lore, as females with supernatural powers have been invoked for so many different and diverse purposes across the ages-from the Greek Medea to Harry Potter's brainy schoolmate Hermione Granger—that there's no core, official type of witch in human mythology. She can be good or bad as the story or ritual calls for, and one village's protectress sorceress is to their rival neighboring village an evil hag in league with Satan.

But back to Italy's beneficial Befana—who as a scaccia guai is in reality using her broom to keep other, evil witches away, sort of a double agent on our side. A Preventative Strike Witch, if you prefer. Good or no, she's still a witch, and as such comes in three flavors, as witches always do.

The Three Ages of Witchery (Or: An Actress's Career Arc)

This scaccia guai edition of a witch or Befana is the proverbial hag, the mistress of powerful supernatural (or, some would have, evil) forces, with the fearsome ability to cast pure magic spells.

There's also the porta fortuna (fortune-bringer) Befana. She's the mother figure, an apple-cheeked grandmamma wearing glasses and wielding the earth-force, exerting the family-based power of command and control from a calm, nurturing center.

The principessa (princess) form of La Befana (or any witch) is the maiden, with a young woman's primal power to bewitch and ensnare men.

We still see echoes of this core coven triad even in latter-day tales of American witchery. The Wizard of Oz has its hag witch (the Wicked Witch of the West), its kindly mother witch (Glenda the Good Witch); even the maiden/princess witch (Dorothy herself, of course, who uses her powers to enlist three males to accompany her and protect her on her quest, and indeed shows her own, inherent magic powers in the heel-clicking finale).

It's the same old symbolic three-step that film actresses are always (justifiably) complaining about, that there are only ever the three classic Gravesian roles out there for women: maiden, matron, or screaming psycho-bitch who boils her boyfriend's pet rabbit.

(Though, to be fair, the "maiden" role is usually available in both Freudian flavors—virgin or whore—so really, there is a grand total of four female roles in Hollywood. This is what drives so many good actresses to the stage.)

Meanwhile, Back in the Christmas Market...

In Piazza Navona's market, all three archetypes of Befana dolls appear in the stalls, hung from mobiles along the awning, with backups nestled into rows filling boxes beneath.

Though the more traditional Italian Befana is the bespectacled porta fortuna grandmothery figure, in recent years, the elderly hag Befana has taken over the stalls. This witchy sort of witch has been heavily influenced by the American Halloween image (something else they learned from Hollywood; there is no Halloween in Italy), and for the most part she is mass-produced cheaply in China.

However, though hags are far more common now, you can find the porta fortuna, dressed in gingham or in woolen robes, or even in striped giallo-rosso (red and yellow) or bianco-azzurro (white and azure) livery—the colors of rival city (Roma) and regional (Lazio) soccer teams, respectively.
One stand, a tiny one that bucks the trend by still carrying mostly artisan-made Befanas and other seasonal figures, actually has a small display mobile that makes the most eloquent statement on this whole, slow cultural changeover: tiny Befanas garbed in the white fur-fringed jolly red robes of Santa Claus.

In person, though, the grandmotherly Befana still reigns. The market has even come up with an Italian variant on the department store Santa: a cramped sleigh "pulled" by a plush, life-sized reindeer, its cabin barely managing to seat an odd, cross-cultural couple: a bell-toting, Santa Clausian Babbo Natale and his companion Befana, both huddled against the cold.

"Come get your picture taken with la bella Befana!" Cries Santa like a carnival barker as he swings his bell. A father drags along two bundled Italian cherubs, a boy and a girl both under eight, navigating the strolling crowd with a tired but determined look on his face. 

"Daddy, who's that?" Asks the little boy, pointing to the Befana. The father looks stunned at first, stops in his tracks, and says with a face of horrified disbelief.

"But, but... it's La Befana!" He says. And then the horrible truth of it dawns on him. His own children recognize Babbo Natale right off the bat, but they have no idea who La Befana is.

To them on this wintery January morning, Christmas is undoubtedly already a fading memory of wrapping papers and batteries-not-included. Christmas itself is over, and this strange carnival of lights, noise, peanut brittle, giant ciambelle, and funny-looking dolls dangling from brightly lit trailer awnings was just something to pass the time on January 2.

These children aren't particularly looking forward to January 6, as Italian kids have for countless generations, because La Befana doesn't visit their house anymore. At most, the Epiphany merely marks for them the last day of Christmas break before heading back to school.

I watch the little family as the father steers them through the crowds, moving more slowly now, haltingly trying to explain about a witch who flies to your house on the Epiphany, a broom between her knees and sack on her back.

Just before the crowd swallows them from view, I see the father pause, pluck from a stall's display two comically oversized socks (in the Roma colors of giallo-rosso), and rummage for his wallet.

Looks like La Befana will at least be adding one more house back onto her rounds this January 6. I bet the boy will even get a mini-switch of twigs; I hope there's some candy to go with it.

Just so long as no one gets the bright idea to bring him some myrrh.

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