Christmas has been celebrated and a new year has arrived with lots of pomp and circumstance. It seems like the holidays are finally winding down. Time to think about packing things away in boxes and clear the way for a brand new year.
Christmas is over… or is it?
The holiday season might be over and done within most parts of the world, but not in Italy. All the Italian children still await the arrival of the Befana. Who is the Befana you ask? She is the good witch who arrives on January 6th. She brings toys and sweets to fill their stockings. (Sound a little familiar?) The day of the Befana falls on Epiphany, the day the three wise men, guided by a star arrived discovered Gesu, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Would you like to know more about this lovely Italian legend? Sì! Well then, let’s step into the shoes of Sophia and eavesdrop on a conversation I imagine my character would have had with her mother, as the two prepare for the Christmas holidays and the arrival of La Befana*.
Sophia always loved the holidays and parties. I got that from her mom. Throwing bashes and organizing events were her forte, but never so much as at Christmas. Her mother was in her element during the month of December recreating all the Italian foods and traditions she had learned about living in Florence. With the help of Luciana, her Italian friend, she prepared biscotti and traditional treats like vin brulè, a delicious blend of warm wine and spices, and panettone, a sweet, yeasty Italian fruitcake. On Christmas Eve we dined on salted baccalà, a savory dish starring a dried-out piece of codfish. On New Year’s Eve, we played “Tombola,” Italian Bingo, and danced around our kitchen wearing silly hats and blowing into paper horns shouting, “Buon Capodanno!” Happy New Year!
But the winter holidays didn’t end there. In the magical manner of my mother, the warmth of the season, always a swirl of bright colors, music, and laughter, was drawn out into the New Year. On January 6th we celebrated the Epiphany and welcomed the Italian witch, La Befana, into our home. Each year my mother carefully unwrapped the puppet she had purchased in a Christmas market in Rome and hung her in the archway of the dining room. Looking up, I admired the old witch, dressed in red with a burlap apron tied around her waist. On top of her head was perched a pointed hat and she straddled a wicker broom.
Tilting her head to one side, my mother would look at me and ask, “Remember the story, Sophi?”
Of course, Sophia had heard the tale a million times over, ever since she had turned six. But just to make her happy she purse my lips and look up at the ceiling as if she was thinking hard trying to recall the story. Then Sophia would say, “I’m not sure, Mom. Maybe you could refresh my memory again?”
Her mother would smile broadly and begin, “Oh, OK, Little-Miss-Know-it-All. In Italy, they would call you ‘una saputella.’ Well, let me tell you the story again.” Then tossing me a cookie from a plate on the table she said, “As you may or may not recall, Signorina Saputella, Befana was a poor, poor woman who had no time to waste on the Magi Kings. No ma’am! She was much too busy cleaning her house to help them find baby Gesù.” She picked up an imaginary broom and pantomimed swatting me on the rear. Then she added, “When the kings came knocking at her door, she shooed them away with her broom.”
Looking over at Sophia she winked. “But in the end, Befana wasn’t so terribly bad. Regretting her bad behavior, she jumped on her broom and went off in search of the baby herself.”
At this point my mother began circling the room, her hand raised to her forehead as if she, too, was seeking the babe in the manger. Passing by the doll dangling from the doorway she tapped it gently causing it to swing into flight. Looking over at me, gesturing like Groucho Marx with an imaginary cigar in her hand, she said in a flippant tone, “She probably even arrived before the Three Kings, had a hot meal waiting for them, and even swept out the manger with her broom. Leave it to a woman to get things done properly!”
Becoming serious again she said, “But during her quest Befana gave a small gift to each child she encountered, hoping to make amends for her selfish behavior.”
Enchanted by the holiday fairy tale, which Sophia actually never got tired of hearing, she waited anxiously for January 6th for more presents that I’d find in a red sock at the foot of my bed.
In the novel “Dreaming Sophia,” you will learn more legends about Italy, as well as learn a bit of Italian to boot! The book is now available on Amazon in print and e-book.