Once upon a time there was an old woman who lived in a village in Italy. One day, the three Wise Men, who were following a star across many countries in search of the infant Jesus, entered the village bearing precious gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. Because she was considered the best housekeeper in the village with the most pleasant home, she was chosen to provide them with food and shelter. Before they left the Magi invited her to accompany them on their journey, but she demurred saying that she was too busy keeping her house and she would see them on their return.
The people of the town joined the Magi on their journey. The next day the old woman awoke to a silent village. She was devastated when it dawned on her that the baby the Magi were seeking was the Redeemer that all the world had been waiting for. She hastily filled a bag of gifts for the baby Jesus and a broom to help the new mother clean and set off in pursuit. She searched and searched – but to no avail; they were gone – and the Magi returned by another route.
While she never found the Messiah, she believes that the Divine Child can be found in all children. To atone for her lapse in judgement all those years ago, legend has it that on the eve of January 6th she flies on her broomstick from home to home delivering gifts to good girls and boys.
She is lovingly referred to as La Befana, the Good Witch of Christmas, who rides the skies on her broom carrying a bag filled with goodies. She is usually portrayed as a friendly and smiling crone, outfitted in tattered shoes and a black shawl worn over a dress filthy from chimney soot.
In anticipation of her arrival, families leave a small glass of wine and a few crumbs of cake (the Italian version of milk and cookies). Evidence of her visit to the home would be a small present tucked into the hand-knit stockings hung from the fireplace. Good children could expect to find a small doll or puppet, books or sweets; children who were naughty were left coal, garlic or onions. Often she would have used her broom to sweep the house.
Befana first appeared in writing in a poem by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549:
La Befana comes at night
In tattered shoes
Dressed in the Roman style
Long live la Befana!
She brings cinders and coals
To the naughty children
To the good children
She brings sweets and lots of gifts.
The twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany was (in early European tradition) a period when the presence of witches was felt strongly, especially on the twelfth night. It was a time when predictions were made and signs interpreted. If an olive branch thrown in the fire took a long time to burn it was a sign that a wish would be fulfilled. Girls of marriageable age would place three fava beans under their pillow (one full, one without a peel and the other half-peeled). Before retiring they would pray for their future bridegroom to come in their dreams and in the morning would examine the bean left under their pillow (the full one meant the groom would be rich, the unpeeled one meant the groom would be poor, and the half-peeled meant the groom would be neither rich nor poor).
Epiphany has been celebrated since the 13th century and is traditionally interpreted as symbolic of God’s revelation of himself to the Magi. In general it is considered a celebration of renewal and the coming of the new season. Befana is the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word epifania (or epiphany), so it is predictable that she would arrive at this time.
The tradition of Befana was primarily celebrated in Rome, but by the twentieth century the tradition was celebrated throughout Italy. Today La Befana is considered a national icon, celebrated with festivals attended by tens of thousands. At these festivals there are hundreds of Befanas present who juggle, dance and greet children. Each child is presented with special candy that resembles coal (rock candy dyed with black caramel coloring) – because after all every child has been naughty at some time during the year.
Like most legends, there are those who believe that Befana is a fanciful story created for children. Whether you believe in Befana or not doesn’t matter; Befana has been embraced by Italian children and their families as a way to celebrate the season and their love for each other.
I wish I had known about La Befana when my children were young. I would have treasured an excuse to keep the tree up just a little bit longer, and sneak in one last celebration before declaring the Holidays over – and I know my husband (Mr. Christmas) would agree.