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Santa, the witch, and the wise men

Santa, the witch, and the wise men

Santa, the witch, and the wise men

13 December 2021

La Befana – the Italian Christmas witch.

By Phil Inglis

I don’t know about you, but for me, Christmas can be very upsetting. I am appalled that the birth of Jesus is being corrupted into a crass, commercialised, cultural celebration. A celebration most often represented by a jolly old fellow in a Coca-Cola-invented red and white suit.

Don’t misunderstand me; I like Santa as much as anyone. It’s just that nothing about Santa acknowledges the world-shaking significance of the birth of Jesus Christ. Santa letters, Santa coming down the chimney, the reindeer, the elves ... it’s just so far removed from the celebration of the birth of a baby in a first-century Middle Eastern barn.

So, while I’m not going to argue that we should fire Santa, I do think it might be time to broaden our celebrations to include a ‘witch’ and the biblical Magi, also referred to as the ‘wise men’.

Just after Christmas 2019, I met up with my sister in London, and we travelled around Italy and France for a couple of weeks. I was due at the International College for Officers in mid-January 2020, so I took two weeks’ leave beforehand.

As we travelled through London, Paris, Rome, Venice, and Florence, there were still Christmas decorations and Christmas stalls everywhere. Most of them were selling ornaments, decorations, clothes, food, coffee, and mulled wine (Venice particularly loves mulled wine). The street scenes were amazing.

Alongside figures of Santa in these Italian stalls were figures of a kindly old lady, dressed as a stereotypical witch (think Wizard of Oz style witch) and riding a broomstick. Not an evil witch, but a witch, nonetheless. I can’t read Italian, so I had no idea what this was all about. I thought it was maybe some recent Christmas-themed movie in Italy that had featured this character, and she had become super famous in that year, but no. What I discovered was far older, more interesting, and spiritually significant. The witch’s name was ‘La Befana’, and she is the Italian Christmas witch.

In Australia, we generally celebrate Christmas on a single day, but Christmas is actually a season that lasts 12 days.

That’s why there’s a song called ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. I think we need to give Christmas its full value again. In particular, I think we need to rediscover the 12th day of Christmas, the Feast of Epiphany (6 January). This is where I believe La Befana may be able to help us.

La Befana gets her name from the Greek word for epiphany – epifania. According to legend, the wise men got lost on their way to see Jesus and stopped to ask the witch for directions. (If they came from the east and asked for directions in Italy, they really were very lost!). La Befana told them how to get to Bethlehem, but when the wise men asked her to come with them to see Jesus, she declined, saying she had chores to do and that she would catch up with them later. Then, by the time she finished her work and got on her broom with her presents for Jesus, she couldn’t find the wise men; they were too far away. So, that is how she became an honorary wise man.

Epiphany is this celebration of the time the wise men (and a witch in Italy) recognised the incredible power and glory of the baby Jesus. This is significant because it is the first time Jesus is revealed to the non-Jewish world. At least two Christmas carols were written specifically for Epiphany – ‘We Three Kings’ and ‘As with Gladness Men of Old’.

My sister and I were in Florence for Epiphany 2020. In that city, Epiphany is a public holiday. The city was crowded because hundreds of people from all over the region came to the city centre to reenact a medieval celebration: the wise men entering Bethlehem and finding Jesus. Tens of thousands of visitors lined the streets to watch this medieval procession headed by three wise men. They cheered and laughed and cheered some more. The procession wove its way through the old town until, at the end, the three wise men came face to face with the baby Jesus and one by one, they knelt and offered their gifts.

At the end of a busy Christmas season, after all the crass commercialism and hype of a Santa Claus Christmas has passed, I love the thought of Christians gathering in the new year to celebrate the wise men bringing gifts and homage to Jesus. The citizens of Florence are really onto something. Epiphany can be a profound and personal dedication of ourselves and our gifts to Jesus of Bethlehem.










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