By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor
She came streaking through the sky, not in a sled or with twelve cute little reindeer, but in her vehicle of choice: a common household item, a sweeping broom. And from her big kettle came goodies for thousands of eager Italian children.
The old lady does a great job controlling that broomstick, at least as well as any pro racer on a 114 horsepower Harley “hog.” A wimp she is not, as she zooms through the night sky. At least Santa has twelve reindeer, and one with a red headlight, to guide him.
What’s the big deal with this old lady called La Befana? Well, the anticipation rivals her American counterpart, Santa Claus, as children awaiting her descent. One significant difference is the Befana arrives on January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany. And, instead of milk and cookies, the Befana expects “una goccia di vino con i biscotti.” A similarity is with misbehaved children. The Italian ones, like the Americans, receive lumps of charcoal or coal in their “sabots” clogs.
Her story is beautiful, but indeed a sad one. Living alone, in the rugged hills of an Italian town, La Befana receives an unexpected visit one night by three wise men with their entourage. They stopped to ask for directions to Bethlehem. While resting and receiving refreshments from the kind old lady, the men tell her about the coming birth of a Christ Child and invite her to join them. She declines, and says she is too busy; besides she doesn’t know of Bethlehem.
After the caravan leaves, La Befana remembers one night having seen an unusual bright light in the sky. She took it as an omen but did not understand its meaning. And now believing the story of the three Sages, she is overcome with a persistent need to travel to Bethlehem to venerate this Baby. So, she hurries to pack a bag of treats and gifts, to offer the Child, and goes in search of this new wonder. Aah, but alas, after trekking afoot and searching for hours, La Befana is ready to turn back home.
Just as she was about to give up, an Angel appears before La Befana, tells her to continue and gives her the gift of flight. Straddling her handy broom, which she just happens to have, La Befana flys off to search once again for this special child. And, still, she does not find Him and finally returns home.
La Befana never gave up, and every Epiphany Eve, takes flight hoping someday to find this exalted child. She visits homes throughout Italy, giving gifts to every child along the way. She eventually comes to understand the Christ Child can be found in all children.
There are other versions of this lovely story, but they follow the same flight path. La Befana received a bad rap from some; often portrayed as an old hag, a witch with a somewhat distorted face. But, in fact, I see her as a gentle, kind senior citizen, who in younger years was a real looker.
There is a poem about this old lady, which in part says “La Befana Vien di notte, con le scarpe tutte rotte, col cappello alla Romana, viva, viva, la Befana!” Translated: “The Befana comes at night; In worn-out shoes; Dressed as a Roman; Long live the Befana!”