She looks underneath the table, in the potato bin, and behind the woodpile, sighing softly, sadly. She sweeps the floor with her ancient broom. She leaves the sweets from her hamper, and sometimes coal if the children of the house were naughty. The offering of wine sipped, cheese and bread nibbled, La Befana lets herself out again.
In the yard, her little white donkey lifts his head from a bucket, sweet well-water dripping from his ghostly muzzle. He's already eaten the grain from the shoe, and is ready when La Befana calls him to her. Off they go to find the next house wherein children live, to search again for her missing babe, to leave sweets and to drink wine, until dawn calls forth the new day, and her night of wandering is over.
There are as many stories of La Befana as there are towns in Italy. This is the gist of the one I remember from a time when I didn't know what memories were. It obviously collected quite a few stories and put it into one--including the Mexican element of grain in the shoe for the donkey. La Befana herself comes out of Italy's ancient past, and not, as far as this Streganona is concerned, a mispronunciation of Epiphany. Even the story I know from my childhood is very Christianized, though the pagan elements remain for any who care to acknoweldge them: At the turn of the year, La Befana sweeps away the year's detrius, and leads her white donkey to the dawn.
Another Christian legend says La Befana was a woman whose child had died. Hearing of the birth of the baby Jesus, she set out to find him, convinced he was her lost son. When she finally found the baby, she gave him gifts. In return, Jesus gave her all the children in Italy for one night every year.
At this time of year, in the northern hemisphere anyway, no matter the faith or culture, it is the celebration of light's triumph over darkness. What stories come out of your past? Your grandparents? Parents? Interesting neighbors? Share!
Glad Tidings of this Joyful Season, and Happy New Year!