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  • The Tale of La Befana

    Italian Memories

    By Cookie Curci

    La Befana
    Christian legend has it that La Befana was approached by the magi (the biblical three kings) a few days before Christ's birth. They asked for directions to where the baby Jesus was, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village with the most pleasant home. They invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the baby Jesus. She leaves all the good children toys and candy, while the bad children get coal or bags of ashes.

    Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

    Also, popular tradition avers that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn't wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds while parents are distributing candy (or coal) and sweeping the floor on Epiphany Eve. Legend has it that she was an old Italian grandma-type happily cleaning her house, when three men showed up at her door. No fool, she was skeptical. She shooed them away when they said they were searching for baby Jesus, the newborn king. After a little while, she had second thoughts. Perhaps, the men were honest and telling the truth. If so, she missed her chance to help them reach the king. She decided she should try to catch up with them. But they were long gone. So, she handed out gifts to all of the children in the neighborhood in the hopes that one of them was Jesus. Every year she goes to look for the three wise men - and most importantly baby Jesus. When she does, she leaves little surprises for the little Italian girls and boys. Some say she didn't go with the wise men because she had chores to do. Others believe she promised to find them after she finished the housework.

    Still others have an entirely different version of the story. I've also heard that La Befana was a mother to a son who lived in King Herod's day. Herod reportedly decreed that each male child born was to be killed because one of them could be the new king. La Befana was so traumatized when her son was murdered that she didn't believe he was really killed. She set out in search of him carrying all of his belongings in a sack. 
She quickly aged from worry - her face became wrinkled, her hair turned gray and she grew to look like an old, haggard lady. She finally found a male baby in a manger and she laid out her son's belongings at the baby's feet. The baby was Jesus Christ. And He blessed the lady as "Befana," the giver of gifts. After that, every year on Jan. 5, the eve of the Epiphany, she would be mother to all of the world's children and would care for them by bringing them treats. 
I personally prefer to believe that last story is the truth. Who can't feel for a grief stricken mamma? What a lovely thought that a woman who lost her baby can turn her sadness into an excuse to nurture all children, including Jesus. But you can pick your favorite legend and stick with it. That's the beauty of La Befana.

    Traditionally, the Epiphany or Little Christmas is a holiday for children in Italy. But the adults never give up a chance for a feast. Many family and friends go from house to house visiting one another after opening La Befana's gifts in the morning. There are parades featuring the Christmas witch - at which she is sometimes joined by her companion Befano. The children sing songs to her and dolls are left out in the windows. Some families burn the dolls to cancel out the past year and usher in good luck. You can start your own La Befana traditions. Just leave out your old socks or shoes for her to fill on Jan. 5 - and believe!


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