I grew up in a small town in the province of Vicenza, Italy, a place Santa Claus bypassed. Christmas was the day we celebrated the birth of Jesus. Our pine trees remained planted in the ground. They were gorgeous, hardy evergreens with not a tinsel in sight but decorated just as lovely in their blanket of snow. And in December we got plenty of snow. White Christmas was the norm, but there weren’t any gifts on that day. It didn’t matter if you’d been naughty or nice.
Before you start feeling sorry for us, let me explain. We did receive gifts, just not on Christmas day. Our delivery date was January 6th, by no means a random date. According to the Catholic Church, January 6th was the day of the Epiphany, the day the three wise men visited baby Jesus. And those dudes didn’t show up empty-handed.
Since we were short on wise men, an old woman delivered our presents. We called the old woman La Befana, the Witch. Supposedly, she was a good witch who traveled by broom and dropped presents down the chimneys of boys and girls on the night of January 5th. The naughty kids would get coal of course¾that must be universal. It certainly gives coal a bad rep.
As we approached the illustrious kindergarten years, my brother and I began to question the existence of this Befana, and we were very vocal about it. Well, I was vocal. My brother was always the silent, brooding type.
One late evening, after New Year’s Day, we sat in the kitchen, the only warm room in the house. My grandmother was telling a story to my brother, my two little cousins and me. Of course the subject of the story was…La Befana.
Grandmother’s kitchen had a large fireplace where legend said the good witch should drop the presents. The fireplace hadn’t been lit in a long time because my grandparents had the latest in modern comforts, a wood stove!
I was particularly skeptical about the existence of the Befana that night, which usually annoyed my grandmother. Not that evening, she only smiled and continued her story. That made me suspicious. I sensed something brewing. My grandmother’s smiles were a wondrous, but extremely rare occurrence.
And then I heard a noise like a cat scratching a wall, the chimney wall!!! Oh, oh! I waited for grandmother to say something, but she just kept on talking. I was the only one staring at the fireplace and getting more antsy by the minute. There it was again, the same noise, louder.
“Nonna, Nonna, someone is in the chimney. Don’t you hear the scratching?”
“Don’t be silly, La Befana isn’t due for two more days.”
Hmm, there was that peculiar smile again.
Finally, I had the attention of my brother and my cousins. They whispered to each other. My brother elbowed me. “Go look.”
“I’m not going to look. You go.” I elbowed him back.
“You’re the one with all the questions. This is a good time to get your answers, unless you are scared.”
“Scared of what?” It was hard to keep my voice steady. ”I’ve been nice…”
Everyone looked at me. What? They didn’t agree with my statement?
“Well,” I conceded. “Most of the time.”
Fine. I would show them. My grandmother made a funny little noise as I stood, stepped on the hearth and defiantly stuck my head inside the fireplace, face upturned.
What felt like millions of pebble-like objects hit my head. I jerked back and screamed so loud if the Befana was up there, I caused serious damage to her ears.
As it turned out, they weren’t pebbles, and there weren’t millions. They were hard candies, a little over a dozen. While I stood rubbing my scalp, my brother and cousins ran over in delight snatching up every last one. I spent the rest of the evening pouting.
Years later, I learned my grandparents were in cahoots with my great uncle who climbed up on the roof and threw down the candies.
Of course, I wasn’t supposed to have my head stuck up the fireplace at the time.
La befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
e col sacco pien di doni
per donarli ai bimbi buoni!