The once beautiful woman swept the floor, sighed, and started sweeping again. He can’t be dead she thought to herself, not my beautiful baby. Grief over the loss of her beloved son so recently after being widowed, began to age her. Some say she went mad.
In an endeavour to eliminate the child professed to become the new king, Herod had ordered the death of all male children born in the year of Jesus. The soldiers had rampaged through her village and taken her baby boy along with all others.
In her sorrow she became obsessive about keeping her home spotlessly clean, sweeping the floor incessantly. One day three wise men knocked at her door. Although she was poor with only rags for clothes and broken shoes, she made them welcome in her humble, but cosy, cottage giving them food and a room for the night. They told her they were following a bright star that would lead them to the new born baby Jesus and showed her the special gifts of gold, incense and myrrh they carried for the Christ child.
The next morning, they thanked her for her hospitality and invited her to accompany them. She declined saying she was too busy with her housework and she had nothing worthy to give the special child.
Delusional with grief, she wondered if this baby could be her own, saved from the evil King Herod’s cruel plans. She left her home, still with her broom in her hand, to catch up to the wise men, taking all her son’s clothes and toys. She also bundled up food she had prepared.
Magically, she began to fly on her broomstick and eventually found Jesus. Realising this was not her child she presented him, and his parents, with her son’s belongings and the food as gifts.
By this time, her faced had aged more with many lines and hair had turned completely grey. Joseph, the child’s father, looked at the face of this stranger bearing gifts and wondered about her past and what extreme sorrow she had suffered.
Delighted at the gifts, and in gratitude to her generosity, Jesus and his father blessed her and gave her a gift in return. For one night a year, and for all eternity, she would be honorary mother of every child as if they were her own.
The twelve days of Christmas finish with the Epiphany, a celebration of renewal, on 6th January. Overjoyed with her blessing, this is the time she takes to her broom delivering gifts to every child; blessing good children and punishing bad ones. She became known as La Befana from the Roman dialect pronunciation of the Italian name for the religious festival, Epifania.
On the eve of the epiphany she climbs down chimneys to find stocking hanging near the fireplace. From her basket to places candy, fruit, toys and books in the stockings of the good children goes; but naughty ones receive coal, onions or garlic. In return the families leave wine and cakes for her.
A smiling but very old woman with a slight hunch, she still wears rags with colourful patches covered with soot from climbing down the chimneys.
La Befana does not like to be seen so here is a word of warning. If you ever spot her on her rounds do not look at her or she will smack you across the face with the end of her broom.