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The Old Woman Befana

Befana, La Vecchia
An Italian traditional story celebrated to this day by making "Befana's cake."
 

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The Old Woman, Befana

No one ever went near the house of la vecchia ("the old woman"), whose name was Befana. Some thought that she was a witch with mysterious powers. Her body was twisted, and she leaned on an old broom in order to move about. Her hands were withered and crooked from working the land and tending her few animals. She had stringy gray hair that was pulled back from her face with rags, and her clothes were patched and worn.

The old woman kept to herself. She busily spent every day keeping the fire going in her small cottage and sweeping the floor all day long. Befana lived near Bethlehem. One cold winter's night while preparing her supper of beans and bread, she heard a knock at the door. Leaning on her broom, she slowly hobbled to the door and called out, "Who is it?"

A deep, soothing voice answered, "Please help us, we are lost." Befana opened the door just a crack. but the light that shone through nearly blinded her. Before her towered three kings dressed in brilliant colorful cloaks of purple, blue, and green. Each king wore a crown of gold and a large jeweled necklace,Befana kept squinting to see them because they were so dazzling.

"We have come to worship at the feet of the Child King, born in Bethlehem," said the tallest king. "'We have been following His star as the angel prophesied, but have lost the way. Can you tell us where He is?"

Befana was astonished by their words. "I know of no king born in these parts, she said and proceeded to shut the door. "Wait," begged one of the kings, "Come with us and we will find Him together."

Befana shook her head from side to side. "I cannot go. I have animals to tend, vegetables to water, and a house to clean. Besides, what would this king want with an old woman like me?" The kings said good-bye to the unwilling Befana and continued on their journey.

The old woman sat down to eat her now cold beans, but she was not hungry. She kept thinking about the strangers and their invitation. Something inside her said that she should go. Without wasting a minute, Befana picked up her broom, put a few pieces of bread in a sack, and set out to find the strangers. She followed their footsteps and those of their camels for as long as she could. But then a great wind came and blew away all traces of their path.

Befana walked and walked, and in each town that she came to she asked if the three men in brilliant clothes had passed through, but no one had seen or heard of them. Discouraged, she lay down near a rock and fell asleep. The next day, she began her journey again, never ceasing to ask the same question. Every time she saw a baby boy, she broke off a crust of bread and gave it to the child, thinking that he might be the Child King who would recognize her.

To this day, Befana still wanders through towns and villages looking for the Child King. Every year on the Feast of Epiphany, or Three Kings, the children of Italy eagerly await the arrival of la vecchia, who still leaves each child a small gift.

(Want to celebrate this tradition? Enjoy making the Torta de Befana

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