I grew up with the tradition of La Befana,” says the 29-year-old mother. “I didn’t really ask myself if I was ever going to continue this with my son. I knew I had to. It’s just part of our tradition.”
In Italian folklore, legend has it that the Three Wise Men were on their way to visit baby Jesus. They stopped at the old lady’s house – who was known to be the best housekeeper in the village, spending her days sweeping and cleaning. She provided shelter for the night. The next day, the three kings invited Befana to join them, but she said she had too much housework to do.
The three magi left, on their way to see the Saviour. La Befana later changed her mind, regretting not going to visit baby Jesus. She sets out to find him, but never does. So every year, the housekeeper, with her broom, visits every home where there lives a child, and bears gifts, hoping to find baby Jesus.
Di Matteo remembers growing up in her parents’ house with socks hanging on her bedpost during the holidays. “The stockings would come out at the same time as the Christmas decorations, but my brothers and I knew not to look for any gifts inside on December 25th. We knew the Befana came on January 6th.”
Di Matteo says her parents have vivid memories of getting gifts once a year in January while they were growing up in Italy.
For Di Matteo’s father Alessandro, the feast of the epiphany was all about surprises. “He grew up with the tradition of Galette des Rois. It’s a puff pastry that’s made just for the Epiphany,” Di Matteo explains.
It’s a French tradition, but Alessandro Di Matteo grew up with this almond-paste cake in Vicoli, Pescara as well. A bean is hidden inside the cake, and the person who finds the bean in his or her slice of cake gets to be King or Queen for the day.
But Di Matteo says that for her mother, Carmela Di Stefano, January 6th was an unnerving experience. “My mother remembers being told a story about an old lady who leaves presents in socks if you’re good and coal if you’re bad,” Di Matteo says. “It was fear-based. An old witch was going to come over. My mom entertained the idea that she was being watched and judged.”
But on the morning of the Epiphany, Di Stefano’s socks in her Campobasso home would be filled with oranges and tangerines. “At that time, it truly was a treat to get oranges and tangerines,” Di Matteo says. “They came from Sicily – a tropical fruit in the middle of the winter. It was a real gift.” And it’s a tradition Di Matteo’s parents passed on to her. “I remember the first time I opened my sock hanging on my bedpost, and I pulled out oranges. I was slightly disappointed,” she says laughing.
“I would get little things like tangerines, oranges, and coins. But it was fun and I looked forward to it.” The tradition also reminded her that she was growing up in an Italian home. “There was definitely a cultural element to it because my French-Canadian friends in school didn’t have La Befana coming around to their house.”
This is why Di Matteo wanted to continue this tradition with her son Gabriele, who is now 11. “With La Befana, I always had the idea that I had to preserve some part of my folklore, and La Befana is much more folkloric to me than Santa ever was,” Di Matteo says. “It’s part of our tradition, and I decided I wanted to add something, so I would leave personal letters for Gabriele, written by La Befana,” Di Matteo says. “The whole letter was in Italian because I wanted him to read in Italian, and I wanted to have dialogue with him in Italian.”
Di Matteo would leave traditional poems too:
La Befana vien di notte Con le scarpe tutte rotte Col vestito alla romana Viva, Viva La Befana!
Gabriele’s letters from La Befana would be full of positive reinforcement. “The letters would say to keep doing well in school and to keep practicing Italian with his nonni,” Di Matteo says. Gabriele still appreciates the gesture and the tradition. “I would always be surprised,” he says.
For Di Matteo, who has a bachelor’s degree in theology, La Befana was also a way to shift the focus back to the religious meaning of the Christmas holiday.“Looking back, I definitely put much more emphasis on the Befana than I did on Santa,” Di Matteo says. “Santa, coming from St. Nicholas, has a more religious connection than La Befana does, but it’s not insisted upon at all. It’s all become very commercial. I wanted December 25th to be about the faith aspect – the birth of Jesus. And I’m trying to connect more with the origins of La Befana and connect it to the story of the magi.”
Di Matteo says it’s a tradition she’ll continue to uphold. “The story is very meaningful. It’s the idea of a search… going off on a quest, looking for a King. Searching for the great, and finding the small… seeing every child as a gift. It’s a neat gesture, and I will continue to do it.”
written by Sabrina Marandolara