Folklore brings magic to true Christmas spirit
December 22, 2010
It's a chilly night and there is much work to do.
Stoke the fire; fill the lamps with oil; sweep the crusty bread crumbs spilled by little hands around the worn oak dinner table from the wood planked floor.
Befana is a busy woman. She is old now, but still strong. She worked hard as a girl and unlike her reflection in the mirror, she hasn't changed one bit. She is known for her impeccable housekeeping. Like most Italian women, it is more than just a source of pride. It is the true mirror that reflects who she is, regardless of what age she becomes. Always tidy. Always disciplined. Always, always working.
It's a little late, but Befana's sweeping and sweeping. She wants the floor to gleam in the firelight. It's the last chore of the day. She doesn't mind the work. She is used to it.
Her old wooden door shakes on its rusty hinges. Someone is knocking.
Opening the door a crack, Befana is greeted by three astrologers. They're cold and tired and they're looking for directions. They want to know where the Christ child is and wonder if they can rest a spell at her house before continuing on their journey.
Befana tells them she has no idea what they're talking about. Like most Italian grandmothers, she is kind but she's not a pushover. She's a little suspicious of their request. Still, she invites them in and offers them some wine and bread. They take her up on the hospitality and set out on their mission the next day.
Before leaving, they ask if she'd like to join them on their journey in search of the Christ child. The thought crosses her mind for a minute, and is quickly cancelled out by thoughts of all the chores she has to do that day. She has no time to gallup along the countryside in search of a child that may not exist. She politely declines and picks up her broom. She sweeps and sweeps...
...Sweeping, she can't get the visitors out of her head. She thinks maybe she made a mistake by not following them on their journey. Resting on the end of her broom, Befana's heart is heavy with the idea that maybe—just maybe—she missed a golden opportunity. She puts the broom in a corner and weeps.
Her heartfelt tears fall on the dusty old broom and suddenly it comes to life. It sweeps her up into the night sky in search of the three wise men. Her apron is filled with oranges and candies. She has no idea where she's going...
Soon, Befana becomes lost. Still, her heart swelling with the thought of a Christ child, she stops at every child's house and gives them a treat just in case one of them is the baby Jesus the three strangers spoke of...
It is a journey she repeats every year on the eve of the Epiphany...
...Epifana in Italian. January 6, the day of the 'shining forth' of God's manifestation into human form as baby Jesus Christ.
Folklore notes that the name 'Befana' evolved from various dialect pronunciations of Epifana.
La Befana is often portrayed as a grandmotherly woman with a broomstick, wearing a black shawl that is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney...
...In Italy, children still anticipate La Befana's visit and often leave her a glass of wine and a little plate of cookies to show how much they love her and how good they've been lest they get a lump of coal instead of a treat.
Perhaps seeing the Christ child in all little children, La Befana continues her journey year after year, mixing her magic with holy reverence, with true love and wonder, with appreciation and anticipation...
Maybe, just maybe, journeying on with the true spirit of Christmas in her heart.
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Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.