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The Day Before the Day After Befana Day

I am loving the delurking.  It’s this one week out of the year where all these new people crawl out of the woodwork and people I didn’t even know where still in the room wave their hand and…well…thank you and keep up the good delurking work.

On the heels of our very Anne Frank Christmas Trolley ride (story coming soon), we are currently entrenched in confusing our Jewish twins further by celebrating Befana Day.  What?  You don’t command a perfect memory of my blog and remember the story I told y’all last Befana Day (which I swear to haShem is a real holiday).

Fine, gather around and I’ll tell it again.

Many years ago, my friend and I were in Italy in the winter and we were staying at a fantastic 12th century palazzo overlooking the site where Dante’s wife was born. The tradition of this particular hotel was to have guests sign this huge guestbook with a small story about themselves and then you could read back who stayed in your room before you.  We were sitting in the living room with the Miranda, the hotel owner’s daughter, reading the book and discussing some other hotel-goers who had particularly noisy sex, when we mentioned that we were going to San Gimignano the next day.

Miranda told us that we wouldn’t be able to get there because the trains wouldn’t run.  It was January 6th, otherwise known as Befana Day.  What’s Befana Day, we asked, and this is the first version of the story:

Once there was a woman named Befana. She was cooking and cleaning and just trying to get through her day when three men came to her house and asked directions to Bethlehem. They told her that a baby had been born who was G-d in human form and they asked if she wanted to come with them to see the new baby. Befana said no because she thought she had already used up too much time giving them directions and she went back to her cleaning and cooking.

A little while later, she thought about how she had just missed this amazing opportunity because she had been so focused on this end goal of having the house clean and dinner cooked. She ran out of the house with her broom and apron and tried to find the three travelers (who were, of course, the three wise men). Befana still goes from house to house to this day, trying to find the baby and leaves gifts and candy at each house she visits.

But there’s a second version, one that might touch closer to home:

Befana was an old woman who was finally a mother after many many years of infertility. The king learned that a baby would be born who would be G-d in human form and he ordered all baby boys to be murdered. Her son was killed in front of her but in her grief, she refused to accept the loss. Instead, she piled together all the things she had made for him, all the hope she had infused into these tangible items while she waited for him, and went out wandering around the world with this sack on her back.

One night, she came to a manger and in her grief, she thought she had found her son who she believed to be lost rather than dead. She placed these items in the manger and the baby’s family saw how deeply this woman grieved from not having her child that they named her Befana, the giver of gifts and gave her a special blessing. One night out of the year, she is a mother to all of the children in the world. On that night, she travels from home to home, leaving presents for children, to remind them how much they are wanted.

I’m not sure how much I love this second version of the story which plays into all the stereotypes of crazy grieving mothers, but there is a part of me that connects with Befana and her grief; much in the same way Fertile Hope eloquently stated her new and strange relationship to Michelle Duggar.  Befana, as she says, is my people.

The tradition is to line up your shoes in the hallway and then Befana leaves candy and presents in them while you sleep.  The next year, I was in Spain with the same friend over the same time period and I left candy in her shoes and since that trip, I have celebrated Befana Day.

The twins draw elaborate pictures of shoes and place their drawings outside their room (since, you know, leaving edibles inside their skanky-ass shoes turns my stomach).  We told them that Befana comes only to the homes of people who believe in her, hence why she doesn’t have to hit the homes of every child in America and why it just might be a good idea to keep the concept of Befana Day to ourselves and not mention it to the rabbi next Saturday.  “Oh, I believe in her,” the ChickieNob promised before bed last night, bucking for a big gift.  “I believe in her a lot.”

“Me too,” I told her.

And I’m sure you believe in her as well; how can you not when she’s your people, an infertile woman who just wants a child to parent.  So if you didn’t have the Christmas you wanted to have, take Befana Day as a do-over.  Eat a nice Italian meal tonight.  Pick up a bar of chocolate and leave it on your husband’s pillow.  You don’t have to explain it; you just have to enjoy it.


1 loribeth { 01.06.10 at 9:32 am }

I sort of knew about the Befana, but I never heard the loss story before — or if I did, it didn’t stick at the time. My husband’s family doesn’t celebrate Befana Day, but his cousin’s wife grew up with it & has passed the tradition along to her kids. At least, she used to (one now in college & one in high school).

I’ll go to Starbucks this afternoon & have a latte in Befana’s honour. Does that count?

It’s also my Mom’s birthday today!

2 Circus Princess { 01.06.10 at 9:34 am }

What a lovely story and great tradition. Happy Bufana day!

3 Mrs. Gamgee { 01.06.10 at 9:50 am }

Very cool! Kind of a spin on St. Nicholas or Santa Lucia… Altho I do have to wonder, why do they always put the candy in your shoe/sock? Why couldn’t it be tradition to put out a cup for them or something?

4 May { 01.06.10 at 10:01 am }

I grew up in Italy. I miss Befana day. We used to get lumps of coal (coal is for NAUGHTY kids), and they’d actually, really, be made of sugar and were wicked cool for dying your tongue and teeth and lips black and then we’d run about the house on a demented sugar-craze trying to scare each other with our monster mouths… Good times, good times.

In the area I grew up, the Befana was always a crotchety old bitch who would snarl at little children. She had no children of her own, and no friends, and was very lonely deep under her sourpuss shell. Then the Three Wise Men came by asking for directions, and she told them to go etc. themselves. They patiently told her all about the wonderful child born to save mankind (disclaimer, I am not a Christian, but that’s the story as I was told it), and she sneered at them. Later that night, she dreamt the Christ Child came to her house and begged her to love him, and she was filled with repentance for what she had done, and set out at once to find the kings, and the Baby, and give what little toys and gifts and sweeties she had. Alas she was too late, so now she goes out every night before Epiphany to look for Baby Jesus, and give presents to all good kind children. Especially those ones who had been nice and polite to crotchety old ladies that year.

5 a { 01.06.10 at 10:02 am }

Happy Befana Day!

6 sunflowerchilde { 01.06.10 at 10:04 am }

Thanks for the story! I am in Italy right now, so I will definitely be enjoying an Italian dinner tonight! Strangely, no one has been able to explain to me exactly who the Befana is. Where I am, it sounds more like kids hang stockings for presents, like in the US for Christmas. The shoe thing reminds me of how we celebrated St. Nicholas Day when I was a kid, though.

7 Heather { 01.06.10 at 10:59 am }

I KNOW Befana!
I KNEW we were separated at birth! I was reading and thinking, “well, who DOESN’T know Befana?!”
The only reason I know—I worked at Disney for years and they have these different Santa’s from each country represented at EPCOT…only Italy’s is Befana! She’s awesome! You should totally go visit her…tell her I sent ya! 😉

8 susy { 01.06.10 at 11:40 am }

I like this! The 2nd version may play in to stereotypes, but WE get it. Happy Befana Day! And I’ll definitely be visiting her in Epcot next time I’m there during the holidays!

9 Minta { 01.06.10 at 12:47 pm }

Thanks for sharing this very unique tradition with us. I think it’s going to become a new tradition.

10 Skytimes { 01.06.10 at 12:59 pm }

The ritual with putting-candy-in-shoes we celebrate as “Nikolaus” at Dec 6th in the german-speaking countries. Good kids get the sweets & chocolate and naughty kids get a charcoal black nose (and a soft whipping with twigs) .

I was such a lucky kid to have huge horse-riding-boots. That way Nikolaus would leave a whole lot more chocolate for me… cause you know I was never naughty… 😉

11 Lisse { 01.06.10 at 2:36 pm }

Wow. I know the Befana story as “Babushka Day” from Russia. I do not know the darker version of the story, but it would not surprise me if there was one.

12 Baby On Mind { 01.06.10 at 2:52 pm }

This is the first I’ve heard of Befana and I like it. Thanks for sharing!

13 Kristin { 01.06.10 at 3:02 pm }

I KNEW there was a reason I felt the need to make spaghetti and meatballs tonight.

14 Rayne of Terror { 01.06.10 at 6:00 pm }

Very cool.

15 katie { 01.06.10 at 6:35 pm }

That is a really nice story. Beats Sinterklaas who takes all the naughty children away with him when he has finished in Holland!

16 Vee { 01.07.10 at 5:18 am }

Buona Bafana a tutti!

17 Jamie { 01.07.10 at 9:15 pm }

I ~knew~ I knew Befana from somewhere!

18 Battynurse { 01.11.10 at 12:35 am }

That’s a cool story. Both versions really. I like that last part about it though. About not telling the rabbi.

19 Bea { 01.16.10 at 6:14 pm }

I only half-remembered the stories. If you keep telling them (plus May’s – was it May?) I will one day learn them properly. I wish I’d got here on time to cook Italian one night.


(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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