Today is the celebration of the Epiphany. Or rather, it’s the day the old kitchen witch brings gifts for good kids or fills stockings with coal for the naughty ones. And traditionally, this has been the Big Day for little kids, up until not very long ago when Good St. Nick finally overtook her market share. After all, who could make it against a rosy-cheeked guy with reindeer and elves? Even though I thought La Befana might make a comeback post-Harry Potter, with her broomstick and all.
But, I think La Befana’s image issue is actually representative of a deep-seated marketing problem which besets the entire country. Sure, everyone associates Italy with beautiful things, fast cars, and Pavarotti’s voice, but luxury goods aside, the Italians still haven’t quite caught the hang of brand imaging for everything else. Think about it: Jolly ol' St. Nick? Although originally hailing from Myrna (by some sources), he became Italian and gained sainthood there after all. And yet, the guy’s gift-giving habit will forever more be associated with Laplanders and the North Pole. All because of shrewd branding by the guys who gave us Nokia, although Antonio Meucci or even Innocenzo Manzetti actually invented the telephone. Heck, even Google owes its engine to an Italian inventor.
Take our long-nosed Befana, for example:
A scary old gift-bearing witch is the figure they chose to symbolize the arrival of the Three Wise Men…and to announce that God had come forth in the body of Jesus? My friend’s son here for a visit couldn’t sleep all night – not from anticipation, but from abject fear. Those wily Olde Englishmen - the forefathers of our mass-advertising execs -- already defying the Church with their divorce decrees, caught on to this story, and rebranded her for Halloween. And now trick or treating has taken Europe by a storm.
[And dare I mention what happened to her when she reached America? Having already turned Halloween into practically a 2-month event including movies, Harry Potter book launches, yard decorations fit for MGM, haunted houses and so many costumes there’s a Dept of Halloween in China, it then took the witch, put her in the kitchen so she could stay (and they could sell her) year round.]
And those poor Sicilians steeped in tradition? They didn’t even get the scary witch and her treats to look forward to. Those kids only get 'I Morti', that night between Nov 1st and 2nd when they would be visited by dead relatives in the night. In the morning (if they hadn’t died of fright from boogeymen), they’d find scattered about the balconies or windowsills chestnuts, almonds, nuts, and dried up figs. It’s no wonder the practice never quite took off in the rest of the world despite centuries of migration to and occupation from dozens of other countries.
Branding, my dear Watsonini. Branding.