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Italy's Public Holidays : la Befana

La Befana was an old Italian lady who spent her days cleaning and scrubbing her house. One day three travelers stopped by. It turned out they were the three wise men who were following the bright star in the sky which would lead them to the newborn baby Jesus. They stopped to rest with La Befana and before they left they invited the old lady to come with them and meet the infant king. La Befana refused. She wanted to get back to her cleaning and felt she had wasted enough time as it was.
But afterwards, she thought the matter over and realized what a glorious opportunity she?d thrown away?so she ran after the three wise men, broom in hand and apron still around her waist, to find them and go with them to meet the infant king. She is still running but time has changed her errand. Now, at Christmastime, she runs over the roofs in Italy bringing gifts to all the children every year on the 6th of January.

La Befana is one of Italy's oldest and most celebrated legends. Each year on January 6 the children of Italy awaken in hopes that La Befana has made a visit to their house. This is a significant day to Italians because it marks the end of the Christmas season and the day that the three Wise Men arrived at the manger of the Christ child. Over the years the Epiphany has been a more celebrated holiday for the children of Italy than even Christmas.

Many centuries ago, King Herod decreed that the first born male child and each male child born in that year was to be slain. It was his desire to kill the child reported to have been born the new "King." Soldiers rampaged villages throughout the country murdering male children. One mother became so stricken with grief that she was unable to cry nor accept the loss of her son. She looked and looked around her house for her baby son. She became convinced that her child was not dead, but instead lost. She placed all her child?s belongings onto a tablecloth and bundled it at the end to carry it over her shoulder and set out searching from house to house for him.

To this young mother it seemed much time had passed as she searched yet, in only a few days, she came upon a child. Convinced that she had found her lost son, she placed the cloth sack containing all her son?s belongings at the base of the manger where the child laid. The young father gazed at the face of this stranger bearing gifts and wondered about the many years in this old woman?s past. Her face had many lines and her hair was fully grayed.

The child was Jesus Christ and in gratitude to the "OLD" woman?s generosity, He gave the woman a wonderful blessing. One night a year for all eternity, the woman He named "La Befana" for "giver of gifts," would have all the children of the world as her own. On that night, she would be able to visit each one, bringing them clothing and toys. The night is January 5 each year and the morning of January 6, children all over Italy find their stockings filled with sweet curly candy for being very good or a dark piece of coal if they have been bad. During the night of La Befana?s visit, she is hosted by each family with a plate containing broccoli and spice sausage plus a small glass of wine.

In modern time, La Befana is only seen on rare occasions and indeed lives in the imaginations of small children.

Another version:

The three Kings stopped at La Befana?s house on their way to Bethlehem. After dining with her, they invited her to follow them in their search for the Christ child. She said no since she needed to wash and clean.

After a while she changed her mind, and gathered up some items from her home to give to the Christ child. Alas, she wasn?t able to find the three Kings nor the baby Christ child. She?s been searching ever since. So every January 5th and the morning of January 6th, children all over Italy find their stockings filled with sweet curly candy for being very good or a dark piece of coal if they have been bad.

As legend has it the three Wise Men were in search of the Christ child when they decided to stop at a small house to ask for directions. Upon knocking, an old woman holding a broom opened the door slightly to see who was there. Standing at her doorstep were three colorfully dressed men who were in need of directions to find the Christ child. The old woman was unaware of who these three men were looking for and could not point them in the right direction. Prior to the three men leaving they kindly asked the old woman to join them on their journey. She declined because she had much housework to do. After they left she felt as though she had made a mistake and decided to go and catch up with the kind men. After many hours of searching she could not find them. Thinking of the opportunity she had missed the old woman stopped every child to give them a small treat in hopes that one was the Christ child. Each year on the eve of the Epiphany she sets out looking for the baby Jesus. She stops at each child's house to leave those who were good treats in their stockings and those who were bad a lump of coal.

The figure of the Kings Magi, in the historical tradition, were priests of the sacred fire.  They were a privileged caste who, in the Zoroastrian Persia, waited until the fire expired. The Magi symbolized the three worlds: earthy gold, celestial incense, and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three substances can be linked to each of the three sacred fires of Vedica, India, and Avestica, Persia. Therefore, it is possible, through fire and gifts, to establish a connection between the Magi and the figure of the Befana in the expectation of the holiday of January 6.