Story of Befana
Retold by Aine Maire Chadwick
High in the hills above the old town of Bethlehem in the land of Judah there stood a little white house. An old woman lived there,all on her own,except for a cat and a dog, some ewes and some hens. Befana was her name and from under a shawl her little face, brown and wrinkled as a walnut, peered out at the world.
Her white hair she kept tightly knotted into a bun.
"Was she ever young", people asked themselves and decided that she had been born old. All day long, every day, she worked hard to keep her house shining bright and her garden properly growing. In Summer she gathered up pliable twigs and branches from the hillside and in the Winter she wove and twisted them into brooms. There was no time to chat to the neighbours or to sit idly in the sun or to enjoy the cool air of an evening. She must always be gathering and cleaning and arranging. Springs and Autumns without number went by and Befana still toiled and moiled day in and day out.
The nights drew in and got cold then colder. From her narrow little bed she could see a chink of sky and when she could not sleep she counted stars. There came a night when the light of one great star seemed to fill all the space in the shutters. White light, yellow light, it brightened the hills and the valleys and moved on its way to rise high in the velvety blue sky. It stood like a beacon over Bethlehem and all the other stars clustered round it. Faintly, faintly from the starry spaces came the echo of a song carried on the wings of the dawning.
She fell asleep at last and in the days that followed Befana wondered much. As she milked the ewes she spoke to them: "Soon I will go down the long road to the town with a bundle of brooms to sell. I'll take some fine cheese and a basket of eggs," she told them,"I'll see what news old Andrew has for me. I'll buy a warm blanket for the cold nights..."
But first there was much work to be done and so she was busier than ever, until, gradually the memory of the marvellous star faded from her mind.
Each night as darkness fell Befana built up the fire on the hearthstone and sat down to twist and weave the springy twigs into brooms. It was as she finished smoothing the last of the handles that the knock sounded loud on the door.
Fearfully she opened it, letting no more than a finger's width of light escape out on to the cold ground. She could see nothing but the blackness. Then from somewhere above her head a deep voice asked,"Good lady of the house can you tell us where we may find the king?"
Befana was so startled that she threw open the door. Great was her astonishment to see before her three tall strangers. Beyond them on the hillside were animals, camels and mules, and many attendants. These were important people, she thought, Roman soldiers, maybe, or Greek merchants. From beneath the hoods of heavy, warm cloaks three pairs of bright eyes looked questioningly down on her.
"Who are you?" she asked, none too graciously. The tallest stranger answered. "We are three kings. We have followed the bright star for many days, going where it led by night and sleeping by day."
"And now the star is hidden from us and we are lost. We seek your help, kind lady," his companion added.
The third king, an old man with a long white beard, spoke gently. "It has been a long journey for us. We look for the king who is new-born in Bethlehem. We have brought gifts for him, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Can you show us the road we must travel?"
Befana opened her mouth to tell them of the quick, short way down the mountain side through the groves of olives but the wind was blowing colder now and these rich strangers had promised her no gifts.
" There is no king born in Bethlehem that I know of. Let your servants find the way to the town if you really are kings," she said crossly.
Then she snapped her mouth shut and she snapped the door shut and left the travellers to find their own way down the mountain as best they might.
"I'll look out for you on your way back," she muttered to herself.
But even when she was warmly wrapped up in bed she could not sleep. She thought of the words of the strangers. She remembered the star. She remembered the singing. She remembered the sweet strangeness.
"I will go to Bethlehem," she decided at last. "Tomorrow."
And she fell asleep.
But next day she found that her sheep had strayed. They had to be found and brought back and the fence had to be mended. She did not go that day. "Tomorrow I will go," she said.
But next day she found that a small mouse had nibbled a hole in a blanket... so she had to sew and mend the hole. She did not go that day. "Tomorrow I will go," she said.
But the next day she found the place over the window where the spiders had been busy and she had to chase them away and roll up the webs. She did not go that day. "Tomorrow I will go," she said.
But next day the ewes had to be milked and so she did not go that day either. Each day brought with it its own task until a whole week had gone by.
However there came a day when the sun shone, when mouse and spider were still, when the sheep stayed home and the ewes were all milked. "Today I will go," she said And she did.
She put out bones for the dog and milk for the cat, grain for the hens and hay for the sheep. She picked up the bundle of brooms and the basket of cheeses and closed the door firmly behind her. Off down the rocky path she trotted.
"Good morning,Befana," called old Jonas,"Where is your journey taking you?" "To Bethlehem, to see the new-born king" she answered, quite pleasantly for once. "Please look after my cat and dog until I get back."
Old Jonas looked sad. "Have you not heard that the soldiers have come to the town? It is not safe..." But the old woman did not hear him as she went on her way down the rocky path.
"Good-day, Befana" shouted young Mark. "Where is your journey taking you?" So she told him, too, adding: "Please look after my ewes and hens until I get back." "Have you not heard that the soldiers have killed all the new-born boys? You will surely be in danger.." But though Mark shouted loudly she did not hear him either.
Late in the evening she reached the town glad to be at the end of her journey. Although she was tired she set about selling her wares. Everywhere she went she asked for news of the new baby. In lowered voices people told her what little they could and at last she saw before her the inn with the stable beside it to which she had been directed.
But now there were no shepherds to be seen. They had all gone back to the hills to care for their woolly flocks. There were no kings to be seen. They had all gone back to their country by another road. There was no little baby, sweetly sleeping, lying in the manger.
Wearily Befana turned and went into the inn to sit by the fire and eat some bread-and-milk. The innkeeper's wife came and sat beside her and told her of the marvellous things that had happened and the events that had followed the arrival of the poor travellers. She told of the birth of the baby and the happy angels in the sky, the hesitant shepherds and the majestic kings.
Befana listened intently to all that she was told. "They all went after a while," said the innkeeper's wife,"and then the soldiers came." Her face turned white and she shuddered and said no more.
For a long time afterwards Befana sat alone turning things over in her mind, her heart full of remorseful sorrow. At last she said to herself: " I will travel far and wide until I find the baby."
Straightway and late though it was she set out on her journey. Down the windy street she went slipping through the gates of the city just as they were closing. She carried a little basket of bread and cheese and leaned on a strong stick as she went up and over the high hills and out into the wide world beyond.
Since that night Befana has been wandering, seeking the new king through every land. By each house she stops. From her basket she takes a gift and places it by the door... just in case he is within.
BEFANA: A retelling of a story from Italy. The name 'Befana' is a corruption of 'Epiphany' and she is depicted as an old, rather witch-like woman. She visits homes on 6th January and leaves gifts for children sweets for good ones and a stone for bad ones. The Befana-Fair takes place in the Piazza Navona in Rome on the days after Christmas Day. There, Santa Claus and Befana are driven round the square in gaily coloured floats distributing small presents to the children.
For visitors to Rome it is an unforgettable occasion.
Aine Maire Chadwick lives in Northumberland, England.