Monday, December 19, 2011

La Befana

La Befana walks the dark-night streets, leading her little white donkey. She raps softly upon the door of every house wherein a child lives, because she is polite and would never simply intrude; but no one answers at the hour she calls, and she lets herself in nonetheless.

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.

Christian legend says the three kings of the magi asked La Befana for directions (men, asking for directions?) and though she gave them shelter in her home, she was too busy cleaning to join them on their journey. Later, she regretted her decision and went after them, and to this day is still searching. In her search, she leaves all the little children she comes across a treat, just in case one of them is the baby Jesus.

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!


Anonymous said...

She reminds me of a kindlier version of La Llorona. Whose story, to me, is downright terrifying.

Also, the reason they were wise men is because they asked for directions. ;)


Terri-Lynne said... HAVE to tell the story of La Llorona now!!! Come on!

Clint said...

Okay, just from the top of my head, La Llorona is a tale from the Mexican border traditions about a woman who either lost her children or drowned her children in a river/ditch (there is often a reason attached to why she did this, i.e. wicked husband, landowner, madness, starvation,etc.), and at night you can hear her wailing, lamenting the loss of her children. Some variations say she is looking for them and takes children to replace them. Or she is an angry spirit and will drown you if you find her.

Either way, she's very cautionary to people (especially children) not to go wandering off into fields at night, lest you be drowned by La Llorona.

Sorry, I have to post anonymously because it keeps throwing up a OpenID error if I use my LJ.

kimberly wade said...

I lived in Italy for a few years when i was a kid. I loved Befana! My brother and i would put our shoes out at night, and in the morning they would be filled with treats. I liked the "coal," which was a sparkly black rock candy flavored with licorice. I remember stores selling bundles of hay to feed the donkey. Something else i remember about x-mas in Italy was the barrells of roasting chestnuts on street corners. They were the best! I've never seen that anywhere else.

Clint said...

Here's a Wiki link with another version of this story.

Like I said, there are lots of versions to this, but she's pretty much a Mexican boogey-man/banshee/weeping woman (literally translated La Llorona means "weeping woman").

A very universal story when you boil it down to its basic elements.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--that is a creepy thing! Wow. Reminds me of the Banshee in Celtic lore.

Thanks for the link! Now I'll have nightmares for certain. :)

Happy Holidays!

Terri-Lynne said...

Kimberly--you lived in Italy?? I'm full of envy. You got to experience La Befana firsthand. Did you have Santa too?

kimberly wade said...

Terri, Santa also visited us, and when we lived in Germany, St. Nicolaus visited. He filled our shoes with treats and left bundles of switches for the bad children! Coal really doesn't seem like a bad gift in comparison. Befana was a softy.

My mother used to have a Befana doll she got in Italy. I wonder if she still has it.

Terri-Lynne said...

Kimberly...a Befana doll??? If she still has it, I MUST have a picture!!!

Thanks for sharing your childhood, love!

J.A. Campbell said...

I'd never heard that one, but I like it :)

The Christmas story that always stuck with me was Krampus, an "evil" santa who goes around with St. Nick and stuffs naughty children into his sack. This is from the Germanic regions of Europe and I first heard about it in German class. Kind of stuck with me. LOL.


Terri-Lynne said...

Oh, Julie! If you like the Krampus story (gross little demon that he is) go on over to Pseudopod where DK Thompson has up a twisted bit of Santa/Krampus lore for a..ahem...lovely bit of Christmas cheer.

I was a beta reader on this story. It's ridiculously squicky!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Terri,

I love your post. So sorry it's taken me a while to comment; the grading deadline was today & things have been more than crazy the last 48 hours.

I've heard La Llorona. Yes, you read that right: HEARD her, not heard of her. She wails in the mountain forests of Costa Rica on windy nights.

The Nutcracker Prince & the Mouse King is still my favorite Christmas legend, but I've already talked ad nauseum about that.

A few years back when my parents were still living in Minnesota, we had a family Christmas at their house. My nephew, then about 9 years old, was up all night Christmas Eve waiting for the Polar Express. He had his slippers and house coat all laid out. Everytime he heard a car pass out front he got up and looked out the window in expectation. Poor guy.

Sometimes I wonder if we're really doing children a favor with these Christmas legends?

But I still love them, nonetheless.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--you know, I've thought that myself. The joy of being a child and believing in all the legends and such, only to have them dashed as we get older, but then, when we're adults, those memories are so cherished, so all in all, I think they're good.

La Llorona wailing in the mountains. Now THAT must have been an eerie sound. My daughter spent a few weeks in Costa Rica after her senior year in high school. She said the screaming monkeys were the scariest things she ever heard!