Since I was a child my family has always celebrated Epiphany and the arrival of Befana; the old witch who in Italian tradition flies on her broom filling children’s shoes left by the door with little surprises; sweets for those whose behavior was good and little lumps of coal and twigs for those who were not so kind or gracious in their actions. But as I got older, the legend of Befana became more important as a way of making Christmas more meaningful. So, I’d like to share our version of it with you.
The Legend of Befana
The story goes that a special baby had been born under a very bright star in Bethlehem and people from many towns and villages were making their way to see him. As it happened, three very learned viziers; sometimes called counselors or wisemen were passing by Befana’s town on their way to Bethlehem.
Befana was beloved in her town as a kind and generous strega (think good witch, wise woman, etc) and was especially fond of caring for the children. One of the children in the town passing by told her of the excitement and bid her to follow. But Befana didn’t want to show up empty-handed and decided she would bake some sweets to take first.
More people passed by her home, calling to her as they hurried by so she would not miss the chance to come. But at her kitchen window, Befana waved them on with a smile and she rolled and baked her breads and cakes.
Day after day, the people going by called out to Befana at her kitchen window as she worked. Each time she smiled, waved and them and said she would be there – she just had a few more things she wanted to get done.
Hurry Up, Befana
Finally the house was clean, all the baking complete and she had them wrapped her many wondrous treats in a clean cloth and tucked in her basket and was heading out. The skies were moving to evening and getting darker and only a few people could be seen in the distance on their way to Bethlehem.
But Befana realized she had not swept her doorway. What if someone came by and her house was messy? She put down her basket and swept the doorway, the porch and all the way down the little stone walkway in front of her home. Done. She decided to bring her broom thinking she could help with the cleaning up from all of the visitors. Now she was ready. She grabbed her basket and her broom and stepped into the road.
Befana Is Finally Ready
But all was silent. The town was empty. There were no people to be seen and now it was well into the night. Had she missed her chance? Maybe she could find a caravan or group of others – perhaps she could catch up?
She ran in the direction of she had seen people go earlier. She ran and ran, desperate to make it. But Befana was not so young anymore and she had no idea where she was going. She refused to give up and continued to run.
Eventually her body could take no more and she sat down under an olive tree, in tears. Befana realized that she had let things that were not very important, keep her from attending to things that really are. She felt devastated.
Grace and Opportunity for Befana
A multitude of angels who had gathered for many days in the skies above Bethlehem were heading home – one of them saw Befana crying beneath the olive tree. The angel recognized her as the compassionate woman she truly was – who had cared for so many others in her town for her entire life. The angel extended a gift of mercy to Befana – in the form of an opportunity.
Befana would not go to Heaven just yet. She would live on – able to do what she loved to do – she would be able bake throughout each year. And then, on Epiphany, she would travel the skies on her broom, delivering treats to all good children, until the day Christ returned to the world. Then she would be able to visit him, completing her heart’s desire and be released from the mortal world. It would be hard work and not necessarily what she might expect, but it would be a chance to amend her mistake through a service of love.
Befana smiled and gladly accepted.
Why do I love the story of Befana?
Because it is a story of many different things to many people. For some, it’s a story of forgiveness. For others it’s story of the promise of redemption and of making amends. It’s a story of service and second chances. A story that reminds us to pay attention to the wondrous things in life – those precious things – the “big picture” and to not get caught up in our attachments or desires; trying to control the little things or be overly concerned with how we might appear or be judged by others. And for someone else, perhaps a story reminding us to listen to the people (and the moments) in our lives that call out for our attention and to not take them for granted.
One particular aspect that I love is that the story of Befana doesn’t have a villain. There is no bad person who “gets what they had coming” – there is no winner compared to a loser. It’s a story of a good person – a kind and giving person – who gets caught up in the mundane, the “busy work” and ends up being distracted from the bigger picture and consequently, makes a mistake. She had the best of intentions, is regretful and tries her best to plough through but cannot do it on her own. Then, from an unexpected source, she is extended an opportunity to amend – not just a cavalier wiping of the slate – but a true chance to act towards making it right.
Make The Holidays More Meaningful
I have been in Befana’s shoes at various points in my life; focused on what details I thought were important and needed my attention – only to discover I was missing something greater and far more precious. At times I had friends and loved ones try to get my attention – to hurry up and not miss the moments that were passing by. And still, I did not listen., But I have also been fortunate to have had many “angels” along the way – from places and people I never would have expected. And in their grace, found a path back to connect with the more precious and dear. Call them angels, wise men, good friends, mentors, sponsors, whatever you want. I call them gifts and I am truly grateful.
A Meaningful Christmas Challenge for You
In celebration of epiphany, a time of realization and discovery – look at your life. See your successes and the things you do have – the cup half full. See the struggles that you overcame, the times you could have stumbled but didn’t, the mistakes you made and yet still you are here today. And then, take a step back and consider the people who helped you get here – helped you through, supported you, loved you, befriended you, believed in you, supported you – whether in big or small ways. Consider making this holiday more meaningful but starting a tradition of reaching out to some of them and letting them know how grateful you are to have had them in your life. Celebrate gratitude and reflection this 12th Night – take the road of a truly Wiseman (or Wisewoman).
Pace’ Tutti and Buon Epiphania!
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