It is a well-known fact that Italians love children; they are unconditionally loved and coddled by brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and nonni. Maybe this explains the penchant for good food, wine and big family gatherings in this country: it keeps people young at heart.
No Christmas is complete without a visit from the Befana, the good witch who, on the eve of the Epiphany (Jan. 6th), flies up and down the peninsula on her broomstick, visiting every single child, bringing gifts of sweets if they are good, or pieces of coal if they’ve been bad.
When I first came to Italy in 1960, it was traditional for the Befana to extend her visits to the vigili (traffic police) as well. In appreciation of their hard work, gifts of panettone and wine were brought by well-wishers to the policemen directing traffic on their podiums.
These memories were brought home to me by my 80-year-old friend and neighbor Giancarlo, now retired in S. Agata dè Goti, who worked as a traffic policeman. He invited me on a walk through his old haunts in Naples and after a morning spent in the neighborhood of Portici, with pauses for sfogliatelle and New Years greetings, we stopped at a bar for coffee on the main square. Lo and behold! There, on the wall, was a big picture of Giancarlo as a young man, dressed in uniform, with a bottle of wine crooked in his left arm!
With time, the Befana dei Vigili became degraded by corporations looking to publicize their products and who gave away gas cookers, refrigerators and washing machines in exchange for big promotional signs.