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Bella Befana

The Befana watching over our feast: Vin brulè (hot spiced wine), banana tea bread, polenta (creamy on the inside and crunchy on the out), and Italian veggie sausages loaded with fennel and red pepper flakes!

Like women in every place in every time, the Befana was overworked and generally exhausted. One night, after having finished her last chore, the Befana was ready to relax and hopefully, fall asleep to the gentle sound of the wind. Just as she sat down, a knock came at her door. She sighed heavily and slowly stood up. Too tired to be fearful, she opened the door with an ill-masked huff and asked, “Yes?”

In front of her door stood three travelers wearing clothes and features rarely seen in her village. Trepidation and intrigue mixed and her voice softened, “How may I help you?”

Two of the travelers looked at her quizzically and she realized they did not understand her language. But the tallest traveler whose accent carried the melody of the desert, gently said to her, “We’ve come from far away, sister, and are in need of shelter for the night. Might you have room or a bite to eat?”

Custom and her normally generous nature—when she wasn’t so tired!—dictated that she invite in the three travelers. “I will feed you,” she said. “There is room with the animals and clean straw for you to sleep on.” The tall traveler nodded. The Befana stoked the fire and reheated the leftover stew from dinner.

The Befana set the stew in front of the travelers and gave them flat bread to sop it up. She poured them each a cup of wine and

decided to pour one for herself. The travelers ate quickly and silently.

“Thank you, sister.”

“Where are you from?” she asked the tall traveler.

“We come from the east and we’re following a star.”

The Befana thought, A star? Who follows a star of all things? They may be touched in the head. Perhaps I should have closed the door! But she said, “Why are you following a star?”

The traveler smiled, “The star has brought a miracle into the world. An infant. A new king. We are going to pay homage to him.” He looked at his fellow travelers and an unspoken agreement occurred between them. He nodded and then said to the Befana, “You are welcome to join us, sister.”

The Befana’s face reddened and she stammered, “Join you? No, no, I couldn’t possibly do that. I have too much work to do. I do not have time to go chasing after a star.” She stood up and said, “Let me show you where you can sleep.”

The tall traveler sighed and said, “Very well, sister. Thank you for your hospitality. We will be leaving before the sun rises.”

Once the Befana settled the travelers with her animals, she returned to her house and sat down, aggravated. A star, she thought. What rubbish! A baby king of all things. Can you imagine? She closed her eyes and tried to sleep. She was annoyed that she would have to wait until morning to collect water from the village well to clean the cups and bowls the travelers had dirtied. She lay awake for hours planning her day. Those travelers sure ruined everything, didn’t they, talking about a miracle. Hmm!

Then, her eyes popped open and she whispered out loud, “A miracle. I wish I could see a miracle, too!” She ran from her house and went to the manger but the travelers had gone. As the sun was lazily drifting above the horizon, she ran from house to house looking for them.

And even now in Italy, every January 5th on the Eve of the Epiphany, the Befana still runs from house to house searching for the miracle baby and leaving a gift for all of the children who reside there just in case they are him.

This is the story (embellished, of course) that I heard when I lived in Italy.

We celebrated the Befana—we called her Bella Befana which is loosely translated as the “Good Witch”—with our village, Dardago, in the Fruili region of Italy. Like so many other small villages, Dardago hosted a Panevin (bread and wine) and a falò (bonfire) that was about four stories tall. I think the annual fire was a way of the villagers getting rid of furniture that couldn’t be repaired, old barrels, and branches. As the night got going, teenagers—and by teenagers, I mean sixty-year old men—would throw gas on the fire and occasionally fireworks that would whistle and lash out at anyone who dared to get too close. People walked around in witch masks and posed for pictures. For a few thousand lire and then a few euro when Italy switched currencies, you could buy a plate of polenta, sausages, vin brulè (hot spiced wine) and what my village called pinza—a dense spice cake filled with apples and figs. The night ended when an effigy of the Befana or just her broom was thrown onto the top of the fire and burned.

That's me on the left in the white hat--I told you this fire was tall!

While it may seem a bit gruesome and misogynistic to burn an effigy of a witch, it’s not about that. It’s not about punishment either. It’s what the Befana represents: how we can get so lost in the mundane, the things we "have to do” and “should do” that we miss the miracles right in front of our faces. More importantly, burning the effigy or broom is cleansing. As we move our way into a new year, we sweep away the debris of the old one. We release what holds us back so we can move forward into the miracle of our true selves.

Bella Befana is something that we celebrate every year. Usually, it’s just me and T. Rex. Other times, we invite over family and friends. We write down on a piece of paper the negative things we want to release (like fear, self-doubt, a nagging shoulder ache) and the positive things we want in their place (like fearlessness, confidence, good health). We don’t share our lists with each other. They’re private. Then, we build a fire, throw our lists into it, and sweep away the old year. One time, I even found a little straw hand broom that I added to the fire.

Then, we eat! I always make the standards: polenta, sausages, vin brulè, and my take on pinza. Sometimes, it’s my mom’s banana walnut bread recipe made rich with sour cream. Sometimes, it’s an apple cake. As long as it has fruit and spice, it works well. Sometimes, I’ll expand the menu to include grilled vegetables like radicchio (red chicory), eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, and onions. I’ll drizzle them with a red wine vinaigrette and serve at room temperature. I also serve the two kinds of biscotti I make during this time of year: cantuccini (Tuscan almond, vanilla and cinnamon biscotti) and chocolate espresso with toasted almonds and chocolate chips. If children are invited to my Panevin, they are treated to hot chocolate.

While this holiday is the perfect mixture of Paganism and Catholicism, for us, it’s a way to reaffirm that we need to let go of things, habits, and behaviors that no longer serve us so we can make room in our lives for something bigger and better. It’s a way of releasing the darkness and letting in the light.

Plus, how can you go wrong with a holiday that features red wine, delicious food, camaraderie, and of course, a roaring good fire?

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