Original Painting by Giada Rose of Rose Witchery
Winter Solstice, the night the archetypal Mother gives birth to the Sun (son), a child of light. The darkest night representing the Earth’s rebirth, as light defeats the darkness. Many pagan traditions, thousands of years old, are still part of our celebrations today, linked so innately to nature and her cycles. The Mother Goddesses were celebrated and honored at this time but as Christianity spread, the celebrations of the ancient ancestors; Germanics, Celts, Norse, Romans etc. celebrating the Goddess slowly morphed into our Christmas today, with a minor mention of divine feminine in Mother Mary.
As a child, my Father’s parents didn’t have a lot of money to buy Christmas gifts for their seven children. So my grandparents would buy each child one gift for under the tree. It wasn’t until after Christmas that they would shop the sales to buy the gifts & candy for their stockings. Those gifts wouldn’t come from Santa but instead from the New Year Witch.
My Dad continued this tradition with me and my sisters. We received presents from Santa on Christmas Eve but a Witch would fill our stockings on New Year’s Eve. Our stockings would be filled with candy and small toys wrapped in newspaper. Sometimes we would unwrap a carrot or a potato, for those times when we weren’t so good. It was always funny but disappointing to open one of those. Our stockings weren’t the traditional “cute” Christmas stockings either. We used my Dad’s big winter socks and they would be packed full. It was always a little impressive how much this Witch could fit into one of Dad’s socks.
I believed this New Year Witch was as real as Santa. It wasn’t until I was a little older and told my school friends about the New Year Witch that I realized maybe this Witch was a bit strange. None of my friends had heard of the New Year Witch, Santa of course, but not this sock stuffing Witch.
In some ways, it made it even more special that she chose to visit our family. I remember wondering if she looked like Glinda the Good Witch or The Wicked Witch of the West. She did bring candy… so maybe Glinda? but I loved the idea of her flying on a broom and wearing a black pointy hat. That definitely seemed more “witchy” than wearing a crown and traveling by orb.
As with Santa, I finally learned the truth about the New Year Witch. However, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized the significance of this Witch and her connection to my ancestors.
It is hard to trace the history and lore, as most pagan folklore was either suppressed to the point of extinction or edited to fit a more Christian adaptation of the story, as is the story of La Befana.
In Italian folklore, Befana is a witch who delivers gifts to children in a similar way as Santa Claus or St. Nicholas. We don’t know the origin of Befana, only the stories that have likely been altered throughout time to conform with more acceptable versions of her story.
It is believed that her name is derived from Epifania, a Latin word with Greek origins meaning “manifestation (of the divinity).” On the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, popular folklore tells of Befana filling the stockings of children with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy, a stick was used in place of coal. Befana, being a good housekeeper, would sweep the floor before she left, sweeping away all of the problems of the year. We see this connection to pagan beliefs about using brooms to clear evil and negative energy from the home. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a small plate of food for her visit, similar to pagan offerings of food & drink to Gods & Goddesses in their rituals and ceremonies.
Befana is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air, wearing a black shawl covered in soot because she enters houses through the chimney carrying along with her a bag filled with candy & gifts. She was also known to knock you on the head with her broom if you saw her, perhaps a tale to keep children in their beds rather than risk catching a glimpse of her.
One story tells of Befana, a few days before the birth of Jesus, as the three wise men come to her asking for directions to where the child will be born. Although she cannot provide them an answer to their question, she gives them a place to stay for the night. In the morning, they invite her on their journey. She declines but once they’ve left, she has a change of heart and goes off to find them. To this day, Befana is said to be seaching for the baby Jesus from home to home. She sees the christ child in all children and leaves toys and candy for all the good children, while the bad children get coal, onions or garlic.
Another tale of Befana, slightly darker in tone, tells of the death of her child resulting in her maddening grief. Upon hearing news of the child of God being born, she sets out to find baby Jesus. She brings the child gifts and in return she is honored as the mother of every child in Italy.
So these stories fit the narrative of Christians but could Befana be much older? It would seem to make sense. Why would Christians try so hard to fit the story of a witch into their traditions? Maybe because she was there long, long before and beloved by the heathens. Rather than try and supress her completely, a better way might be to take her story and “adopt” her as part of Christmas.
In ancient Rome, Strenua or Strenia was the Goddess of the new year, purification, and wellbeing. The tradition of giving gifts at this time was celebrated in her honor. In Italy, a Christmas gift used to be called strenna. The gifts were similar to those left by Befana; figs, dates, and honey.
Befana also maintains many similarities with Perchta or Berchta, a white-robed Goddess who oversaw spinning and weaving. Her name thought to mean “the bright one.” Perchta likely emerged from an amalgamation of pre-Germanic, Germanic and Celtic traditions. Perchta was said to appear either as beautiful and white as snow like her name, or as an elderly hag. In many old descriptions, Perchta had one large foot, sometimes called a goose foot or swan foot, a mark of her higher nature she could not lay aside…and at the same time the spinning-woman’s splayfoot that worked the treadle on the weaving loom.
Like many ancient stories it wasn’t wasn’t all sugar plum fairies with Perchta. She would roam the countryside during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany entering homes with children. Good children were likly to find a small silver coin in their shoe or pail but if they were bad…well, it was said that Perchta would slit their bellies, remove their guts and stuff them with straw and pebbles. It may seem a bit harsh but many tales of the times were, like Hansel & Gretel, kidnapped by a cannalbalistic witch. All the more reason for children to obey their parents. Perchta was generous to the kind and punisher of the bad.
Perchta is often identified as stemming from the Germanic Goddess, Holda. Frau Holda or Frau Holle was the protectress of agriculture and women’s crafts, particularily spinning and weaving. She was celebrated at the time of midwinter. Germanic tradition speaks of the Forest Goddess, Holda, shapeshifting into a white doe, going into the sacred cave to give birth to the Sun.
Holda was later considered a witch that rode on a distaff, a tool used for spinning that looks similar to a broom. She was known as a leader of women and nocturnal spirits that would leave their sleeping husbands. They would travel vast distances through the sky, to great feasts or battles amongst the clouds.
In some alpine regions of Germany, Austria and Northern Switzerland they still hold processions while diguised in wild masks impersonating Holda, Perchta or related beings. Today, Befana is still celebrated throughout many cities in Italy around Solstice and the New Year.
The New Year Witch…Is she Befana? Was she Strenia? Perhaps Perchta or Berchta? Or Holda? We may never know but as you rediscover the stories of these important female archetypes, Goddesses and Witches in folklore you may just recognize that she is part of you, your history and your ancestors.
Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live Befana!
Here comes, here comes Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes Befana!