Italian bambini and Spanish niños are lucky, indeed, because they receive presents twice only in 12 days. Italian Babbo Natale and Spainish Papa Noel (or also El Nino Jesus) are more related to the modern traditions celebrated almost all over the world. But, as a matter of fact, both countries have their own Santa Claus that comes and brings gifts to children on January 06. La Befana and Los Reyes Magos, respectively in Italy and Spain, visit every house on Epiphany and bring festive joy and happiness to families. And all of them are the main characters of a legend that is known to be based on the Christian religion (rather than folklore stories) and it dates back to the 13th century. But there are some scholars who believe that, actually, La Befana has even pre-Christian origins (probably connected to the early Roman customs of leaving and exchanging presents that took place in the middle of winter, around Saturnalia). And what is the legend itself?
La Befana was a very old woman who lived just outside a small village. She lived alone in her tiny house on the top of a hill in Italy. She lost her husband and baby-boy long time ago. Her days passed in loneliness and she was entirely occupied in housework. She baked and cooked, cleaned and swept. She also grew vegetables in her garden as well as she gathered herbs and prepared remedy for every illness. As to her clothes, they were colourful and always soot-covered. She always wore a shawl and she had tattered shoes on her feet.
One night the old lady was visited by Los Reyes Magos (the Three Magic Kings). At first, she noticed a bright light in the sky and a little bit later the marvelous caravan of the Three Magi stopped in front of her tiny house. The three priest-astrologers had set their journey to Bethlehem from three different countries (Balthazar from Arabia, Gaspar from India and Melchior from Persia) and they met not far from Jerusalem. They spoke three different languages but despite this they managed to understand one another and discovered their journeys had the same aim – following the “bright star” they would be able to visit the newly born baby-boy – Jesus Christ, and would bring him their gifts.
On their way to Bethlehem, the Three Wise Men stumbled upon la Befana’s house and asked the old lady for some food and shelter. Of course, she gave them a shelter in her tidy little house and prepared an opulent supper for them. While they were at the table they told the old lady about their journey and asked her for the directions. Unfortunately, she couldn’t help them saying that she knew nothing about that far-distant place. Before starting off again they invited her to join them but she refused explaining that she had much work to do in her house.
After the camel caravan of Los Reyes Magos disappeared and la Befana was left alone next morning, she thought of her little baby-boy who had sadly died and regretted not having gone with them. Her great love for children made her change her mind and immediately she prepared a basket in which she put baked treats and her child’s toys and belongings for the baby and a broom for his mother who would use it to clean the house. After having prepared everything for the journey, la Befana went out of her house as quickly as possible and raced out after the Three Wise Men’s caravan.
Although she had been following the same “bright star” as the Three Magi, she got lost. Discouraged and exhausted, la Befana realized that she needed a rest during the night. That’s why she chose a rock where she could spend the night. She had just closed her eyes when she was suddenly awakened by the bright light. All of a sudden, an angel appeared and jumped out of the magic star. The creature took the old lady’s broom, sprinkled some stardust onto it and ….. and disappeared fast.
La Befana opened her eyes and she got amazed. She realized it was the night of miracles. The stardust was magical and her broom could fly. Filled up with energy and strength, the old lady jumped on her magical broom and continued her journey. She never found out baby Jesus Christ. She never gave up searching for the Holy Child either. Her journey has still been going on.
Wait a second. 🙂 I said she had never found the newly born baby. But it’s not true. Actually, she found him (but she would never realize it) and he gave her the most wonderful and awesome blessing ever. La Befana would have all the kids in the world as her own children on one particular night, i.e. on the Eve of Epiphany, for all eternity. He also named her “La Befana” (“Gift-Giver”) because her generosity was enormous. She bestowed (and she has still been doing it) good children with candies and toys. But at the same time bad ones got socks filled with lumps of coal and dark candies (and they have still been badly surprised in that way).
So, you there (a child or a grown-up child), have you been good this year? 😉 Happy Epiphany to all of you. 🙂