By Jeff Westover
Of the many images of Halloween none can be scarier for a child than that of a witch — an ugly, stern, mean old woman with a broom. It is an element of Halloween that defies explanation, a betrayal of both history and tradition. The image of the woman-flying-on-a-broom is actually born of a legend of Christmas — and a tradition still widely celebrated in a figure from Italy known as La Befana. This is her story.
To those who would see her from the road she appeared to be nothing more than a lonely old woman who lived alone. But the lines on her old face were drawn from years of tragedy. The lines told the story of losing her husband and infant child to a sweeping disease, leaving her a widow and a childless mother.
She had very little. But what she did have was precious to her. She kept these small treasures locked up in a chest — a small doll her that once belonged to her beloved child and a scrap of wool from her wedding dress, worn long ago when she married the man she loved.
In her loneliness she contemplated love, heaven and the wonders of nature. At night she would sit alone on her porch and look at the stars. As she thought these things her mind centered on a rumor of a special star, a star she often looked for. The star signaled the birth of a new king — a king of kings, a king of hearts.
On a cold night, the 6th of January, over 2000 years ago this old woman received some visitors who reported that they saw the star and they were looking for Bethlehem.
They spoke joyously. They were enthusiastic in their quest and bid the old lady to accompany them as they searched for the king. But she was afraid. These were strange men, richly dressed, and they spoke so eloquently. She feared she would not fit among such company and she politely declined to go.
By and by a shepherd came to her house. And he too told of “great tidings of joy”. How was it this lowly shepherd had heard of the star and the birth of the king, she wondered?
“Word has spread,” said the shepherd, “and many of us have heard it from angels!”.
He too bid her to come and rejoice with him in Bethlehem to welcome the newborn king. Again she declined, thinking it might be wise of her to wait until the morning. To her amazement she saw then the new star in the sky she had studied so regularly. So it was true! A baby! The very thought made her heart leap with hope and excitement. Yes, she thought, I will go in the morning.
All that night she prepared to depart. Gathering her most prized possessions she considered what she should do. She was poor and had little to give. But the kings had gold to bring the baby. And the shepherd too had gifts to bear. What could she, a lonely, sad old woman bring to honor this new king?
She opened her chest and reached in for the doll. Tears instantly welled in her eyes at the touch of the aged toy. How she missed her baby! She thought of her chubby little fingers holding the doll, her wet little lips giving it kisses those many years ago. This doll, as much as she loved it, as much as she had caressed it in her pain of many years, would now bring joy again to another baby and ultimately to herself. She took the tattered piece of wool from her wedding dress, dyed it a lovely royal purple and sewed together a robe for the newborn king. These would be her gifts. Humble, but all she had.
In the morning she arose quickly and set out on the road, not knowing when she would ever return to her home. It mattered not to her. She had a mission. She had new hope. She had to find the Baby King.
But no one else was on the road that morning. She stopped to ask directions to Bethlehem but nobody she met had even heard of the place.
She traveled all day, wandering and then into the night, where she looked for the star to guide her as it had the wise men and the shepherd. But the skies were unfamiliar to her now and the star she did not see. She was lost.
To this day she wanders, carrying her gifts and treasures, peering into the faces of babies as she goes. Still she seeks the Christ child. Though she has not found him, she gives what she can to the sweet children she visits each Christmas night. Her heart still longs for her baby and the gifts she brings are her way of feeling that child’s love.
For nearly 2000 years her tradition has been celebrated. Like other gift bringers of legend, her story changes with time and her image evolves.
Adults have portrayed her as ugly but children see her as giving. Naughty children fear her, for the ugly witch might leave them a switch with which they could be beaten for their bad deeds. But good children love her and put out their own cherished possessions by the fireplace as their gifts to her. If they leave their clothes near by Befana will fill their pockets with new treasures.
Befana is grandly celebrated in Italy and all over Europe. She travels to this day, bringing gifts to babies she holds dear as she wanders looking for the newborn King she may never find.