The legend of La Befana, the Christmas Witch

When it comes to holidays with a good witch story, the natural one to come to mind is Halloween.

But it turns out Christmas has a famous witch, too.

Magic and lore have a long camaraderie with the Christmas season. In the centuries before electricity, the shortened hours of daylight and cold weather drove people indoors in the evenings. An oral tradition of spinning spooky stories evolved, which eventually exploded into a written tradition of Christmas ghost stories in Victorian England.

The season also has lighter fare of magical tales – the most enduring story in the United States is the story of Santa Claus, his flying reindeer, and his North Pole toy-making operation.

I’ve long been familiar with stories of Santa and the specters of Victorian England, but it was only this year that I encountered the tale of La Befana.

La Befana, 1821, Bartolomeo Pinelli. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Ruth Cole Kainen.

La Befana is a figure from Italian folklore. Artwork and written accounts depict her as an elderly woman who rides a broomstick and carries a sack of candy to deliver to children. She enters children’s homes by shimmying down the chimney on Epiphany Eve. Like Santa Claus, her gift-giving is based on a naughty-or-nice list. The well-behaved children receive candy or a toy, and the misbehaving children receive coal, onions, or garlic.

Children also should make sure to be in bed and asleep with La Befana comes. Any little scamps who try to catch a glimpse of her may be in for an unpleasant surprise, according to Nikki Crowell in an article about La Befana featured in The Culture Trip: “The children are told that she will give them a swift thump from her broomstick if they try to see her when she arrives, but the tradition could just be to keep kids in their beds.”

As a bonus for Mom and Dad, the story goes that La Befana sweeps the floor of each home before she leaves. She is a legendary housekeeper in Italian folklore.

Instead of setting out milk and cookies for La Befana, families set out a glass of wine and a Christmas treat, such as a slice of a traditional holiday cake like pannetone or pandoro.

La Befana in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy. She brings gifts to children as well as good luck and blessings for the new year.
Naturpuur, Wikimedia Commons

The link between La Befana and Epiphany is a tale about how the Magi (or the Three Wise Men) stopped at her home on their way to Bethlehem. The kindhearted witch gave them food and a place to rest. In return, they asked her to accompany them on their journey to honor Jesus. La Befana declined, but after the Wise Men departed she decided she would make the journey after all. She gathered food and gifts to offer Jesus, but she never found him. Instead, she began distributing her treats to all of the children she met.

The feast of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 in Italy to mark the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. On Epiphany Eve, it’s still traditional for children to set out shoes or stockings for La Befana to fill with sweets. Several cities in Italy also mark the occasion with festivals celebrating La Befana.

Despite going by my maiden name of Stroebel (which hearkens my German roots), I married into a family with strong Italian heritage, and La Befana’s lore has found a home in my household. If she wants to cross the Atlantic on her broomstick, she’s welcome to come down my chimney and sweep my floors on Epiphany Eve. I’ll have a glass of wine and a slice of cake waiting for her.


3 witchy reads for autumn

Today is the first day of astronomical fall.

You know what that means. Mugs of hot beverages. Pots of soup. Pumpkins on the porch. Warm, fuzzy sweaters.

And curling up under blankets to read.

As daylight wanes and nature prepares itself for a dormant season, it’s the perfect time to spend more hours indoors with a good book. (As if there’s ever not a good time to spend with a book …) This is also the season when the witchy vibe resonates the strongest, and that’s often reflected in my choice of titles from September through November.

Listed below are three of my favorite witchy reads from the past few autumns.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

by Katherine Howe, 2010, Hachette Books, 384 pages

Summary: Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie’s grandmother’s abandoned home near Salem, she can’t refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest – to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.

Katherine Howe knits together the past and the present in this work of historical fiction. Although the book is light on fantasy and the magic is mild, it offers a glimpse into the Salem Witch Trials and an academic pursuit to find the “receipt book” (or recipe book, essentially a grimoire) belonging to Connie’s ancestor.

Storylines that blend magic and academia rank high among my favorites, as well as those that weave magic into our everyday lives and world. Not to mention the Salem Witch Trials have been a historical obsession for me since high school. If any of your interests tick the same boxes, this would be a good book for you.

The All Souls Trilogy
(A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, The Book of Life)

by Deborah Harkness, 2011-2015, Penguin Books, approx. 590 pages each

Summary: Historian Diana Bishop has denied her magical heritage, instead focusing on her academic research into alchemy. But when she stumbles upon a bewitched alchemical manuscript at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, she draws the attention of witches, vampires, and daemons alike. There’s no ignoring her magical past, nor can she ignore geneticist and vampire Matthew Clairmont as he becomes her unlikely ally in discovering the mystery of the manuscript known as Ashmole 782.

Magic is front and center in this trilogy, which also happens to be a trifecta of fantasy, academia, and romance. Rooted in our modern world, this series introduces us to a world of magic that hovers at the edge of our peripheral vision.

Despite Matthew Clairmont’s possessiveness of Diana driving me crazy, I enjoyed the romance of the trilogy. Plus there’s time travel, globe-trotting, and escalation of magical power as the series progresses.

The Heretic’s Daughter

by Kathleen Kent, 2009, Back Bay Books, 332 pages

Summary: Sarah Carrier Chapman narrates how she survived the Salem Witch Trials that killed her mother. Sarah and her family arrive in a New England community gripped by superstition and fear more than a year before the trials begin. As the family witnesses neighbors and friends pitted against each other, the hysteria escalates, until more than two hundred people have been swept into prison. Among them is Sarah’s mother, Martha Carrier. In an attempt to protect her children, Martha asks Sarah to commit an act of heresy – a lie that will condemn Martha but save her daughter.

This isn’t a novel in which you’ll find cauldrons or incantations – instead, you’ll find monsters among men. This piece of historical fiction sticks close to reality as it explores how the hysteria and accusations could mount against neighbors during the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. Even though the trials occurred during a bitter Massachusetts winter, the chilling history of Salem makes this a worthy pick for fall reading.

The (literal) nature of research

Writing fiction requires authors to ferret out a lot of facts.

On the surface, it seems like a paradox. Massive swaths of the story are pure fabrication straight from the author’s imagination. Why would a writer – particularly a fantasy writer like me – need to delve into research?

Ah, because the devil – as he so often tends to be – is in the details.

Those wide swaths of story that we conjure from our imagination need to be grounded in a bit of reality so readers can relate to it. The tiny grains of fact and detail that we sow into our writing give the words a sense of authenticity.

Sometimes my novel research is as simple as a quick trip to Google. (By “quick trip,” I mean the actual time it takes to find the answer … I inevitably tumble down a rabbit hole of reading articles and checking social media afterward. By the time I resume writing, at least twenty minutes have passed.)

Often research involves keeping a stack of reference materials nearby. Other times, it involves reading 400 pages of nonfiction or waiting for interlibrary loans to arrive.

A stack of reference materials I keep on hand while writing The Witch’s Witness.

Then there’s the firsthand research. For The Witch’s Witness, this has been my favorite kind.

Much of the plot centers around Heather Barlow, a flora witch with an innate skill to manipulate the inherent power in plants. A significant portion of the story happens outdoors and relies on describing the sounds, scents, and sensations of Heather’s surroundings.

Black was not the color of death. To Heather, it was brown.

When she had last seen the beech lying prone in the glen, the sawtoothed leaves had still held the vibrant, healthy green of summer. Even though she could no longer sense the steady beat of life in its wide trunk, the green still gave a veneer of immortality. 

The illusion was broken now. The leaves were withered brown husks, flaking away from the branches like curls of dead skin. Their crunch under her boots made her flinch with every step, as though she walked barefoot on crushed glass. Had the tree fallen in autumn, the scene would not have been so jarring. The color of death would have blended well with the color of seasonal sleep as the plant world went dormant. But here, in the vibrancy of July, it was as stark as blood on beige carpet.

– Excerpt from The Witch’s Witness

To capture the nuances of nature, I can’t sift through the pages of a book. I have to immerse in nature itself. For that reason, much of my research lately has involved abandoning the keyboard and tying up the laces on my hiking shoes.

A beech tree at the Morton Arboretum

The beech tree mentioned in the excerpt above plays a significant role in Heather’s life. I grew up on five rural acres with an assortment of tree species – oaks, Scots pines, balsam firs, spruce, pear, apple, cherry, walnut, euonymus – but no beeches, so last summer I ventured to the Morton Arboretum to experience a beech grove. I wanted to know firsthand details, such as what the texture of its bark felt like against the skin of my palm, or how its branches sprawled and spiraled.

Getting out of the house and absorbing the world through my own senses is the best research I can bring to my desk.

Another thought on firsthand research for writers: A great way to replenish inspiration and find new ideas is to put yourself into new situations. I’m a notorious wimp during Midwestern winter weather and rarely leave the house if I don’t have to, but earlier this year I went on a winter hike along the Illinois & Michigan Canal trail. It gave me the chance to experience a familiar place in a new season. The trees grow thickly along the canal, and for the first time I heard their barren branches grating against each other with a sound like a rusty door hinge. It’s a detail I’ve squirreled away in my mental log, ready for whenever I need to add a bit of color or authenticity to a fiction scene.

Which came first: The writer or the witch?

All of my life, I’ve been a daydreamer. I’ve never been sure if I pass more of my hours navigating real life or wandering my imagination.

That’s why Halloween always has been near and dear to my heart. It’s one of the rare days in the U.S. when we merge our daily routines with our daydreams. It’s a day when we let imagination take the lead.

In my youngest years, I chose the typical costumes associated with a feminine aesthetic – one year I’d want to be a ballerina, the next I wanted to be a princess. In third grade, I was a pink, glitter-covered fairy that garnered the praise and attention of my teacher.

But there was one costume I adored above all others. One that I began to request year after year. Eventually, my mom stopped asking, “What do you want to be for Halloween?” and instead started asking, “Do you want to be a witch again?”

Dressed as a witch for Halloween and holding my cat, Panther

The idea of magic – and particularly the women who yielded it – captured my imagination early on. Images of women huddled around bubbling cauldrons, soaring in front of the moon on broomsticks, and living uninhibited lives deep in the forest strummed a chord in my heart. To me, witches symbolized control over their own lives and power over any situation. A witch wouldn’t be scared of the dark – she could summon flame to chase shadows. A witch wouldn’t be afraid of a wild animal – she would tame and befriend it.

When I pulled on my pointy black hat and swished my tattered skirt every Halloween, I felt fearless and powerful.

While Halloween stoked my love of witches, popular media fanned the flames. I was six years old when Disney released the movie Hocus Pocus. It’s a miracle our VHS cassette lasted as long as it did, because from August through October each year, I watched it multiple times a week. Even though the Sanderson sisters were the villains who sucked the souls from children to stay eternally youthful, they were my favorite characters. What little girl wouldn’t want to brew potions and browse the thick vellum pages of a spellbook and enchant the world?

(Not to mention they could fly on those iconic besoms.)

Hocus Pocus | Walt Disney Pictures | 1993

Then in 1996, along came the TV series Sabrina, the Teenage Witch starring Melissa Joan Hart. I was nine years old, and every Friday night I spent a half-hour watching a regular girl discover her magical powers and use them in a modern world. Not only was the witch the hero of this story, but she was young and modern and relatable – a witch who listened to Britney Spears, wore butterfly hair clips, and weaved through the minefield of school drama.

* * *

Before I even started school and learned to write, I declared I was going to be an author, so it was a natural progression that I penned (or rather, penciled) tales about witches and dragons and fantasy worlds during my grade school years.

That changed as I got older. Although my reading diet remained full of the fantastical – The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Harry Potter, and The Prydain Chronicles, among many others – my writing shifted toward realistic fiction as I entered junior high. I had reached an age when my classmates wanted to muse about boys and who would make the girls basketball roster and which pop band was the best. No one wanted to conjure wild games of make-believe anymore.

Me at age 12 (seventh grade) dressed as a witch for Halloween. My sister holds the end of my wig in front of her face and says, “Look, I’m Cousin It!”

Not that I stopped conjuring witches and magical artifacts and dragons in my daydreams. But I kept them carefully to myself. The exception came once a year on Halloween, when I could transform into a witch and daydream aloud without the risk of judgment.

Fantasy and lore still called to me, but I didn’t write it down. Instead, I went through the teenage rite-of-passage of scribbling angst-ridden poetry and hormone-fueled journal entries and experimental stories that seemed deeply profound at the time but make me cringe today.

Throughout high school and college, I felt an increasing pressure to write meaningful work – something that could be a Pulitzer contender or deemed “the Great American Novel.” I started and failed to finish multiple pieces of literary fiction that were full of themes and meaning and symbolism but lacked an important ingredient. I didn’t care about them.

It wasn’t until I wrote a fantasy tale for my nieces as a Christmas surprise that I felt truly engaged in my writing again. The mist that had clouded my inspiration for nearly two decades finally lifted, and I embraced a simple truth: I am a genre writer. As much as I appreciate literary and realistic fiction, my heart belongs to first and foremost to exploring paranormal and fantasy stories.

Working cover of The Witch’s Witness

I’ve spent a lifetime consuming media about witches and imagining what a world with magic would be like. Now I’m recording those musings on paper. After all, life is too short to waste on stories that don’t feed the flame inside us.

* * *

My debut fantasy novel The Witch’s Witness will be the first installment of a three-book series (name of trilogy to be announced) about a coven of witches in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Release is tentatively set for summer/fall 2022.

How COVID-19 changed my perspective on being an introvert

Image by Mira Cosic from Pixabay

It doesn’t take new acquaintances long to learn two things about me: I’m an introvert, and I’m a homebody.

When stay-at-home orders first were issued at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, my life didn’t change much. I couldn’t go to the movie theater anymore, and I had to wear a mask to the grocery store, and there were a few days I tried to avoid using the bathroom until I really had to go so I could conserve toilet paper.

Other than that, my routine remained status quo.

I didn’t think I would mind hunkering down for a while. Even before the pandemic, I liked to spend my free time around home – reading, writing, bingeing a Netflix series, doing a little yard work. Quiet days at home give my thoughts time to roam. I can daydream at my leisure and explore ideas for stories.

In the past, I’ve found an abundance of writing inspiration in corners and crannies around my house. For example:

  • Reading Jane Goodall’s Seeds of Hope helped inspire part of my work-in-progress, The Witch’s Witness. (In fact, most nonfiction is a good source for inspiration when the well runs dry … truth isn’t always stranger than fiction, but it can certainly kindle it.)
  • The harebells blooming wild in my backyard are also called witch’s thimbles, which help put me in a spooky mood to write about witches in high summer.
  • A trip to my attic uncovered three dusty boxes left by the previous homeowners. Further investigation revealed a treasure trove of 100+ year-old books.
  • An evening on the porch swing listening to cicadas, bird calls, kids shouting down the block, and distant train horns sparked a sensory poem.

But as much as I value and cherish being at home, spending the past year and a half in my house finally began to replete my fiction-writing resources. I reached a point where I wanted to tear up my introvert card and fling myself among people. I longed to refill my cup of ideas, to people watch for ideas about body language quirks and dialogue tidbits. I wanted a long road trip where I could see new scenery of the United States, hear new accents, taste new regional flavors. I especially wanted to book a cabin in Vermont, where The Witch’s Witness primarily takes place, so I could authentically capture what it’s like to breathe the air in the Green Mountains and walk those trails.

But COVID-19 safety precautions kept me home.

Writing can be a solitary endeavor at many stages of the process, but I never realized how often I need to break out of my introvert shell for the sake of a story. Suddenly I couldn’t go to the library for research. I couldn’t visit the coffee shop or park for people watching. I couldn’t experience life beyond the borders of my home-work-grocery store bubble.

By December 2020, writer’s block descended. I thought endless hours at home would mean the most productive writing months of my life, and at the beginning that was true. But as weeks piled up into months and then mounded into a year, I learned the value of being among people to write about people. I missed encountering other places to help envision settings and bring them to life.

In 2019, all I wanted was more time around home, to be left alone to write. I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me staying home in 2020 eventually would hinder my writing more than help it.

Now that it’s 2021, I’m grateful to be experiencing life beyond my front door and outside city limits again. Home is still my recharging station (and believe me, extended time outside my house still depletes my batteries), but this introvert is happy to be entering society again.