Today I’m participating in the 100-word #adventghosts2012 flash fiction event run by writer Loren Eaton. Here’s my piece. Some back-story follows…
Epiphany morning, Arturo Saverio — literary scholar, occasional poet, and more frequent goat butcher — found a spectral hag poking his kitchen fire with a broom.
“La Befana! I have longed to see you ever since childhood! Mamma told me I was foolish to believe. But then, she never thought I’d amount to anything.”
“Caffè!” screeched the hag. Her lips looked as if she’d been chewing coal.
Saverio brewed espresso.
The witch hobbled to a chair, dragging her flaming broom after her. “Oops.”
Later, she warmed herself in the glow of the writhing, burning man.
“Eh. Maybe your mamma was right.”
My mother grew up believing not in Santa Claus but in La Befana—a witch who supposedly brought gifts to good little Italian kids on Twelfth Night, which many Christians celebrate as the Feast of the Epiphany. That feast commemorates when the wise men beheld the Christ Child in the manger. That encounter was regarded as a critical moment, a meeting of two cultures:
—Gentiles, meet Jesus.
—Jesus, meet three dudes who symbolize the rest of the outside world that will adore you.
According to Italian legend, the hag known as La Befana was invited by the Magi to meet the Christ child but turned it down because…she had too much housework to do. (Pausing here for your ?!?!) Later realizing the error of her ways, La Befana committed to traveling the world (or at least Italy) on Twelfth Night, leaving presents at the home of every child.
That origin story varies greatly, but it’s the one that I first heard, so I’m sticking to it. These days, Italians do actually embrace Santa Claus (they call him Babbo Natale) but purists still root for the hag. When we lived in Rome, we’d see these Christmas stalls set up in Piazza Navona where people were selling tons of little La Befanas.