Buon L'Epifania! Alright, The Feast of the Epiphany is actually tomorrow, but what happens tonight is so much better than any old feast... La Befana comes tonight! Who is La Befana you ask? Well, my friends, sit back at let me tell you the story of La Befana as it was told to me growing up:
Once upon a time there was a beautiful young Italian woman. She was married to a handsome man and together they had a lovely baby boy. Unfortunately both her husband and her son became very ill and died. Devastated and lost in her grief, the young woman shut herself in her little house and did nothing but clean day and night. Over the years her beauty faded until she became an ugly, decrepit old woman.
One day three wise men knocked on the door of her little house. They had heard that she was the best housekeeper in the village and they needed shelter for the night. During their stay, the three wise men told La Befana about the birth of the baby Jesus and invited her to come along on their journey to find the Christ child. She refused, for who would clean her little house if she left? Later, after the wise men had gone, La Befana had a change of heart. She cleaned her house one last time, then packed all of the toys that once belonged to her son in a sack, and flew away on her broom in search of baby Jesus. She was never able to find him, so to this day she flies around stopping at every house searching for the little baby and leaving presents for the children she finds.
Yes. La Befana is the Italian Christmas Witch. Not exactly the most cheerful holiday tale, is it? I've heard different versions of the story throughout the years and I think every family celebrates the tradition slightly different, but still... it's so great! My grandmother used to tell me that if I stayed awake to try and see La Befana, she would thump me on the head with her broom. What! What kind of absurd children's tale is that?! The idea horrified me when I was little, but now I think it's absolutely hysterical. Only the Italians would come up with such a terrifying yet lovable character.
In Italy there are all kinds of festivals celebrating La Befana. The town of Urbania, which is believed to be her home, holds a four day festival leading up to L'Epifania every year. There are all kinds of games, food, and music, and children can come to meet La Befana herself. I've also read that Venice hosts La Befana races on January 6th where men dressed as the witch race boats down the Grand Canal. How funny would that be to watch!
There is a fantastic version of the La Befana story called "The Legend of Old Befana" written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola. You can buy it here. He's also brought several other Italian children's tales to life, including his most popualar character, Strega Nonna.
Now children, here is what you need to do if you'd like La Befana to come visit you tonight. Leave your shoes outside your door when you go to sleep. I'd go with your biggest pair, maybe some boots, to have room for more treats. Leave some fruit and a glass of wine (yes, La Befana loves her vino) on a table because she'll be hungry and thirsty after such a long journey. If you've been good, when you wake up in the morning your shoe will be filled with fruit and candies and little toys. If you've been bad, you'll have cenere and carbone (ashes and coal). My brother and I usually found chocolates, tangerines or celmentines, and a movie or some little toy in our shoes...and always a lump of coal for good measure.
But remember, whatever you do, don't open your eyes or La Befana the Italian Witch will whack you on the head with her broom!