Single Espresso, please. Oh, and a gingerbread scone! I just love these seasonal pastries. I’m also a spreader of sweets, you know. Around this time of year, I bring treats and goodies to children’s homes, leaving them in their stockings at night. Sounds familiar, right? But, I’ll have you know, I’ve been doing this even before that famous gift-giving saint got his start.
I am La Befana, the “Christmas Witch” of Italy.
My story started many centuries ago, when I was going about my housework. It never seemed to end. I’d dusted every surface in sight, and was sweeping, and sweeping, and sweeping … Night fell, and when I swept near the cottage window—Mama mia!—the brightest star I’d seen in my long life glistened in the sky. I stopped for just a moment to lean on my broom and admire it.
That’s when the knock came at the front door. A visitor at such an hour, I thought, was quite odd. I cautiously opened the door to—I could hardly believe it—three kings! Actual kings, foreign ones, dressed in silken robes of such splendor I’d never laid eyes on. They were weary from traveling and asked directions to Bethlehem (they were quite lost then). I welcomed them in, offered them rest and refreshment, and inquired about their journey. They were following the bright star, the one I’d just seen, to bring gifts to a newly born king, a savior! Wouldn’t I like to join them, they asked, and see this baby king for myself?
I did. I very much wanted to go. However . . . My gaze drifted then to my broom resting in the corner. There was simply too much work to do. I couldn’t leave my cottage to the dirt and dust during such a long journey. I thanked them for their kind offer and politely declined. They thanked me for my hospitality and went on their way.
But after they’d gone, a shadow of regret came over me. I had to go. I simply had to! I leapt into action, preparing all sorts of sweets and treats as a gift for the baby, tied them in a sack, and set out on my journey. The star, I knew, would guide me to where the kings had gone. But, oh, how lost I soon found myself! In my fervor, I began leaving sweets at every child’s door, continuing my search for that blessed baby. And I haven’t stopped this practice, continuing it each year even to this day.
The kings, or Wise Men, however, found their way without a hitch after visiting me. They arrived to present their gifts to the child on Jan 6th. The day is known as the Epiphany, or “Epifania”, and is where I got my name, La Befana. (The imagery of me with my broom likely led to the “witch” nickname.) So now, every January, once Christmas and that ever-famous Baba Natale have come and gone, Italian children still have something to look forward to. On the eve of the Festa dell’Epifania, they put out their stockings for the treats they know I’ll be leaving them.
These days, however, I might also leave coal for a few especially naughty children. A little trick I picked up from Saint Nick. I don’t envy the fat man his fame, though. All the letters he receives each year, all the expectations! I’m quite happy with my bit of renown here as a local character. Italian children all know my name, and in my traditional hometown, Urbania, they even hold a festival in my honor. The annual celebration of up to 50,000 people involves singing and dancing in the streets, and hundreds of “me” handing out sweets to the little ones.
So, while I may not be an official Saint like Nicholas, some may argue I’m all the more relatable as a lowly commoner seeking and spreading joy throughout the season. I’m just a hard-working casalinga, and a bit of a cleaning fanatic, with a secret yearning for discovery and adventure. Oh, and an ongoing soft spot for the little ones. Speaking of which, I’ve finished my pastry, and it’s time for me to head out. January is fast approaching, and I’ve got to start preparing all of my own sweets for those hopeful children.
Images from Wikimedia Commons.