Monday, January 5, 2009
Mille grazie, La Befana!
Tonight is the night when the Italian Old Lady makes her way through the skies on her broom. Shrouded in a black shawl and covered with soot from chimneys, she enters people's houses and leaves gifts of honey, dates, figs, and other fruits for all the good little children - coal for the naughty ones (or "carbone" today, a type of black, Italian sugar candy).
Where does La Befana come from? Some legends have it that the three Magi, on their way to find the baby Jesus, stop in her village and stay at her home. They ask her to join them, but she stays home because of all the housework she has to do. After the Magi leave, she feels regrets and sets out in search of the child, rewarding children along her journey.
Another version has it that she was a woman who lost her own son, and she went mad with grief. Upon hearing of this other boy being born, she goes to find him, convinced that it is her own child. She presents him with gifts, and in his love, Jesus blesses her as being the mother of all the children in Italy. From that time onward, on the eve of the Christian feast of Epiphany, she gives gifts to all children.
In some regions, people burn puppets of the old woman as a way of letting go of the old year and welcoming the new, and some research suggests that she is a holdover from an older pre-Christian feast for the goddess Strenia, a Mysterious One of strength and endurance.
My hubby doesn't know it yet, but I do have a gift for him, and although I'm not able to tonight, tomorrow, in honor of La Befana, I plan on stuffing figs with walnuts and baking them in some wine and honey. Luckily, I still have some figgy pudding leftover from New Year's that I can leave out on the porch for the wonderful Old Lady.
Some people have commented on La Befana as being a way to connect the power of our ancestors with the younger generations, creating a throughline from the gifts of the Old Ones to the boundless energy and possibility of the Young Ones. As I look up at the photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents that hang in my kitchen, I realize for the hundredth time how important this connection is.
Tante grazie, La Befana!
(The copyright for the first image is on the actual photo. Sometimes, La Befana is pictured or seen riding a donkey, suggesting she is mistress of the animals, as well as being a mistress of magick. Every year in various towns in Italy, La Befana rides into the square, handing out sweets to the children. The second image is an illustration found at www.llmallozzi.com.)