La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana
viva viva la Befana!
More years ago than I care to remember, my mother first told me the story of La Befana. It stayed with me through the years and I retold it to my son when he was a child. La Befana is one of Italy’s oldest and most celebrated legends, a marvelous story about a good Christmas witch. Perhaps the term “witch” may be too strong. I think “fairy” would be more correct. However, because the Befana was old and ugly with a pointed chin and hooked nose I suppose that, by necessity, this made her classification as a witch seem appropriate. Still, she is as much a part of the Christmas spirit in Italy as the German Christmas tree, the English mistletoe or the increasingly popular American Santa Claus who the Italians have dubbed Babbo Natale. Even today, in modern Italy, on twelveth night, the evening between January 5 and 6, she makes her rounds, just as the Magi do. The name Befana is thought to be a derivative of the word Epiphany or Epifania in Italian which is a celebration of the manifestation of the Christ child to the gentiles (the three Magi, in particular, and the world in general.)
The legend began about the time the Christ child was born. At that time she was already old and bent with arthritis and used a gnarled oak branch as a cane. She lived in a tiny stone cottage on the outskirts of Bethlehem that was more like a large room than a house. She lived alone, as her husband had died years before, and she had no children or family. Her one luxury was the large fireplace in one corner that was as tall as she. It was here that she cooked and sat to keep warm during the cold winter months.
That winter in the holy land was particularly cold and bitter. The cold aggravated her arthritis and sent shock waves of pain through all her joints. Still, when her supply of branches and twigs was used up she was forced to go back out into the cold and search for more fire wood. The cold wind blew down from the hills above and she pulled her patched shawl tightly about her and hobbled towards the forest in search of more firewood. Despite the breeze, the night was clear and the moonlight bright. It was almost two hours later when she returned with a small bundle of branches. Every bone and joint in her body seemed to complain in unison. She was extremely tired. After adding some of her twigs to the fire, she almost immediately fell asleep in her rickety chair. The Befana was so poor the chair was also her bed.
The next day, she repeated her search for firewood and this time she returned with two bundles. She bound them with a coarse cord of woven hemp to make it easier for her to carry. Then she looped the cord around her neck so that one bundle hung on each side. She used her shawl to protect her skin and she slowly made her way back to her cottage, balancing the bundles and leaning heavily on her cane. She was overjoyed because with the extra bundle she could barter for food at the market in Bethlehem – which she did. By the time she returned to her cottage, night had fallen. She felt a strange elation that she attributed to her luck in finding the extra firewood. Once more, the night sky was clear and bright and ablaze with stars. One star, in particular, outshone all the rest. She marveled at this strange phenomenon. Just as she reached the door to her cottage, several figures appeared. Their shapes seemed to rise out of the ground as they approached the crest of the hill from the other side. They grew taller and taller, and as they reached the summit, she could see that there were three riders on camels and each had several attendants on foot. They were speaking animatedly but in a tongue she could not understand. As they neared the path to her door, one of the riders called out to her in an accent, thick and foreign sounding. “Can you tell me, grandmother, if the town ahead be Bethlehem?”
The Befana was intrigued by these strangers who wore clothes of fine silk and were wrapped in thick wool shawls with colourful designs. “It is indeed, honourable sir,” she answered, bowing in reverence to the three riders who by their manner and dress were surely men of dignity and stature. “Forgive my presumption,” she continued, “but if you are here for the census proclamation of Caesar, you will find the town crowded and all accommodations taken. I would ask you to stay with me, but my abode is very small.”
“Thank you, grandmother, for your kindness but we are from a distant country and are seeking the newborn King of the Jews. We have followed his sign in the night sky and it glows most brightly here above Bethlehem. Have no fear, though, We have come to worship him, not to harm him. Perhaps you have heard this good news and can direct us to him.”
The Befana was riveted by the news of the newborn king. She thought it was strange she had not heard any gossip at the market that King Herad was to be a new father. “I know nothing of the young king, but I most surely would like to pay homage to the babe. May I accompany you?
“Of course, grandmother, but you must not dally. Yonder star still moves, and if we lose sight of it, we will also lose our way,” they said.
“I will be but a moment. Let me gather some food to take on the journey and I will happily join you.” She rushed into her cottage as fast as her aching body would permit and picked what little food she could scrape together. As she was about to leave, she remembered that it would not be proper to visit the child without a gift, however small. She searched every inch of the room but could find nothing. At last, in desperation, she picked up the only item of value she had – her remaining bundle of fire wood. She put it into an old sack, threw it over her shoulder and hobbled out to the caravan of strangers.
To her dismay, she found that they had departed into the night. Even so, she could hear the occasional bray of their camels in the distance. In a panic, she hurried in the direction of the sound toward the centre of Bethlehem, her silver hair flying in the wind behind her. Above, the sky was still clear, but no longer could she see the bright star that the strangers had followed from their distant homeland. She began to fret that she would not catch up to the caravan, and if she did, her gift for the new king was not good enough. As these thoughts whirled through her mind, she found that she was suddenly running faster and faster and that she felt no pain in her joints. Soon her speed was so quick her feet left the ground and she flew high into the air. She could look down and see the entire town spread out below her. But no caravan did she see, nor star sign in the sky.
“What shall I do?” she wept. “I cannot find the caravan of strangers or the new born king.” She continued to fly above the town and noticed that her eyesight had suddenly become as sharp as an eagle’s. What she saw in the town below were many poor children. As she continued to search for the Christ child, she visited the poor children. When she reached into her burlap sack to pull out a branch or twig as a token gift, what she found instead was a toy, cookie or piece of fruit. The more gifts she distributed, the more the sack contained. Soon she had visited every child in Bethlehem except the Christ child. So she went on to the next town continuing her search, then the next, and eventually the whole world.
She continues her journey each year and visits every child who knows her story. So, if you are a child or a child at heart, remember the Befana and she will visit you and leave you a gift, too.
The Befana loves children very much and is so sweet that even when the child has been naughty during the year she still leaves them a gift. In these special cases, though, the gift is a piece of coal. For the naughty child, it is a reminder to be better during the coming year. To the Befana it is better than a piece of branch, twig or fire wood.
Viva, viva la Befana!