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Allusionary Assembly

The Writing of Kerry E.B. Black

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A Witch for Epiphany

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

In Italy, presents are delivered to children on the eve of 5 January, Epiphany (also known as Three Kings Day) by a benevolent crone named La Befana. Children tidied up their rooms and hung socks from their bedposts, hoping to earn little gifts from the Christmas Witch. For the well-behaved, La Befana left figs, honey, dates, candy, and other small gifts, but for the naughty, she left onions, garlic, coal, or a switch. Although families left a glass of wine and a plate of food for the hag, any who dared spy on her work received a thump on the head from her ever-present broom. If feeling generous, La Befana sweeps the abodes, as though sweeping away the previous years’ troubles.

Some historians theorize La Befana derives from the Roman goddess Strenia. Strenia presided over the distribution of New Year’s gifts of fruits and sweets in ancient Roman households.

La BefanaAnother legend places her in Bethlehem when Mary bore Jesus. The magi stopped at her house to ask if she knew where to find the new-born king. She did not know of Jesus’ whereabouts, but she offered hospitality to the travelers. La Befana’s reputation for excellent housekeeping saw her rise early to begin chores. The grateful magi asked La Befana to join them in their quest. “Alas, I am too busy,” she replied, and they proceeded following the Star to find Jesus. Later in the day, La Befana reconsidered and sought the magi, but she could not find them or the King.

The tradition states that La Befana regretted missing meeting the holy family, and so on the night of the magi, Epiphany, she travels in search of him. She leaves presents for good children because in them she sees the spirit of God. She hope to warn the wicked from their bad courses with her messages.

Hanging stockings for La Befana

Old lady puppets resembling La Befana often are cast into fires on the night after the New Year in Italy, as though representing the old year’s leaving.

Though since WWII Santa delivers presents to the kids in Italy on Christmas Eve, the witch remains in favor. Throughout Italy and in places with dense Italian populations, parades and performances celebrate the crone. As far away as Toronto finds La Befana choirs singing the praises of the popular Christmas witch.

*First published at Halloween Forevermore

Article: The Bad Boys of Christmas

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Krampus and Saint Nicholas art circa 1896

My daughter remains fearful of Santa Claus. Every year, she asks that the big man from the North leave the presents on the back porch instead of breaking in to sneak around the interior of our house. The Louis Armstrong tune “Is Dat You, Santa Claus?” makes me think she is not alone in this concern.

Santa is derived from St. Nicholas. This 4th century bishop possessed courage, strength, as well as supernatural powers. He freed slaves and prisoners, sympathetic to their plight after spending time incarcerated for his religious beliefs. Notably, he rescued a boy held by the Babylonian King. His fondness for children allowed him to hear the wrongs done to them. When a father felt inclined to send his dowry-less daughters to prostitution, St. Nicholas in secret and under cover of night sent bags of gold down the chimney to land in the girls’ stockings. They then possessed dowries, preserving their virtue. When walking through a market, he heard children crying out to him, but saw none. He tracked their calls to a barrel of pickling fish. Nicholas opened the lid and discovered their murdered, dismembered bodies. He kicked over the barrel and restored the children to life. Medieval iconography sometimes depicts St. Nicholas with a captured devil in chains.

After his canonization, his feast day became a celebration when the saint brought presents to reward good children and left switches or coal for the naughty. Some folk disliked the Saint’s stern stance and devised a teammate for his deliveries.

Knecht Ruprecht (translated loosely as Black Devil) in 17th century Nuremberg joined St. Nicholas. This staff-carrying, long-bearded gent handed out gingerbread, fruit, and nuts to well-behaved children, and beat the bad with bags of ashes.

Saint Nicholas and Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) generated controversy in recent years in the Netherlands, Aruba, Belgium, Luxenbourg, and Spain. This 19th century holiday character dressed in Renaissance clothes and sometimes a blackened face. He proceeded Sinter Klaas in parades, scattering cookies and amusing children, but he also brought birch switches called “roe” or lumps of coal in his burlap sack for the poorly-behaved. In Holland today, whole fleets of multicolored Petes, including females, are part of an updated imagining of holiday icons such as this freed slave or chimney sweep who assists with gift giving.

Krampus

One theory links modern images of Santa and his entourage with the Wild Men of Woden on their thrilling hunts. Woden, or Oden Allfather, with his long, white beard battled frost giants and sent his crows Hugen and Mugen to gather intelligence from around the world, including listening on rooftops around chimneys.

However, one of St. Nicholas’ companions generates such enthusiasm that the day of celebration no longer honors Myra’s bishop. Krampus Nacht many call the 5th of December, marking the day with parades, balls, plays, and frivolity. This terrifying, dark companion glories in punishing the naughty with blows from switches and rusty chains. Krampus carries a burlap sack to abduct the particularly bad and drag them to Hell. Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run, includes elaborately costumed, terrifying demonic Krampuses running amok with their punishments. Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, Finland, France, and other parts of Europe embrace the night of alcohol-consumption and nightmare generation. Krampus’ depictions vary from a sinister, black-clad gent to a horned devil or a hairy man-beast with a monstrous tongue. I’ve found Krampus celebrations here in the United States. Tonight is Krampus Gras in New Orleans. Dallas, TX, Honolulu, HI, Phoenix, AZ, and San Francisco, CA revel with the demon tonight, too. Tomorrow finds Krampus partying in Wellsboro, PA, Denver, CO, Kingston, NY, and Los Angeles, CA. He even makes a late-month appearance on the 13th in Philadelphia, PA and Los Angeles, CA.

Other dark companions for the saint include Certa, Perchten, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, and Klaubauf.

In all, though, remember, “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows if you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. So you better watch out!”

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