Tonight, possibly for the last time as I'm not sure if she makes trips outside Italy, La Befana will be flying over our rooftops looking for good little boys and girls. The chances of her stopping by here are rather slim unless it to drop of a load of coal.
I've written about her and the stories and traditions surrounding her on two previous occasions. Its a tradition which I can only hope will continue and not be undermined by the whole Babo Natale commercialization that seems to be taking over Christmas.
There are several versions of her story and the details, as with any good folk tale, vary from region to region. I've recently read a rather touching addition to the first version I recounted back in 2008. You may recall that in that story she was an old woman who was so busy house cleaning that she didn't have time to join the Three Kings on their journey. When she realized her mistake she gathered up a bundle of sweets, oranges, cookies and a few lumps of coal and with her broom in hand - she did have this thing about sweeping - set out looking for the Christ Child on her own.
In this most recent version as time passed she left the Holy Land and came to Italy. Here she continued her search and went from town to town looking for the Christ Child in the presepe set up in homes and churches. Sadly all she ever found was a wax or painted wooden Bambino surrounded by rigid unmoving figures. Finally she reached Roma and on entering "the great church there" approached the crèche - surely of all places she would find the Christ Child there! But once again she was disappointed for this time the manager was empty.
Exhausted from her search she fell asleep only to be woken by gentle laughter. The figures around the manager had come to life and one of the kings - perhaps Melchior - was laughing, not in derision, but with a kindly laugh. Joseph, his flowered staff in hand, indicated the empty manager and spoke to her. "Dear Befana, " he said "you want to find the Bambino as he was on that night in Bethlehem when angels' voices filled the sky with their song, but much time has passed since then. The Christ Child is not found in one child but in all children; He dwells within each child. Your place is not here searching for a child long gone but amongst all children living and you must continue finding His presence in them."
Again I remember my friend Marco telling me that when he was a child tonight - January 5th - was one of most exciting nights of the year in his home. Let's hope that as time passes the custom continues and his little nieces and in time their children still have the magical tradition of a little old lady who is searching for the Child that dwells in them. Vive la Bifana! Viva!
05 gennaio - San Paolo l'Eremita