Italian American Digest DIGEST Winter 2017 Final - Page 19

WINTER 2017 I talian A merican D igest PAGE 19 Whatever Happened to Santa Claus? W by Maria J. Falco, Ph.D hy did Italy ignore that most celebrated icon of Christmas in Western Europe until the wars of the 20th Century when they were told about Santa Claus by Italian American soldiers? After all, it was to Italy that the body of St. Nicholas, the Greek Christian Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, was moved to Bari in 1087 to prevent it from being destroyed dur- ing centuries-long conflicts between the Arabs, the Normans and the Byz- antines, for control of the territories around Asia Minor and the Adriatic. A Basilica had even been con- structed over his tomb in Bari, and churches all over Italy (including in my grandparents’ home town of Pa- ternopoli) were named in his honor: San Nicola. So why did the Italians wait so long to honor him in the way the rest of Europe had been doing for centuries, as the person who de- livered toys and gifts to children on Christmas Eve? Well, it seems that Italians had their own icon to help them celebrate the season: an old woman called Befana, based on the Greek term “Epiphany.” According to legend, Befana was sweeping outside her house around the time of the birth of Jesus when the Three Wise Men stopped and asked her where they might find the Son of God. She shrugged and said she had no idea. She gave them shelter for the night, and the next day they asked if she would like to help them find Him. She replied that she was too busy with her housework. But after giving it some thought, she decided to do so. However, by then it was too late to join the Magi in search of the Christ Child, so she spent the The Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, houses the tomb of St. Nicholas. following centuries flying about on her broomstick, delivering toys and gifts to children all over Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night) hoping to find Him eventually! But Italy is nowhere near the route taken by the Three Wise Men to find the Christ Child (Asia to Bethle- hem!) It seems this myth may h