Friday, December 2, 2011

The Christmas Witch

My mother was Italian, and I was raised in what was for all intents and purposes an Italian home.  One of the oldest ornaments on our Christmas tree was a figure of a little old witch lady riding on a broom, an ornament which my great-grandmother brought to this country.  I remember asking my mother why we were hanging a Halloween decoration on our Christmas tree.  My mother told me that in Italy there was no male figure who delivered Christmas gifts to good girls and boys.  There was no Santa Claus or Father Christmas or Grandfather Winter.  Italian children get their presents from an old woman, a grandmother witch, a strega.  Her name is La Befana.  The story goes that the three Kings stopped at La Befana’s house on their way to Bethlehem. After dining with her, they invited her to come with them in their search for the Christ child. She said no, since she needed to wash and clean her home.  After a while she changed her mind, and gathered up some items from her home to give to the Baby Jesus. Sadly she was never able to find the three Kings, or the baby Christ child. She’s been searching ever since, flying on her broom. So every Epiphany, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, children all over Italy find their stockings filled with sweet curly candy if they've been very good, or a dark piece of charcoal if they have been bad.  I thought of this, and the poem that follows, as I spent this afternoon setting up our own Christmas tree.  Somewhere on it will be a little Befana.

THE BALLAD OF BEFANA by Phyllis McGinley

Befana the Housewife, scrubbing her pane,
Saw three old sages ride down the lane,
Saw three gray travelers pass her door --
Gaspar, Balthazar, Melchior.
"Where journey you, sirs?" she asked of them.
Balthazar answered, "To Bethlehem,
For we have news of a marvelous thing.
Born in a stable is Christ the King."

"Give him my welcome!"
Then Gaspar smiled, 
"Come with us, mistress, to greet the Child."
"Oh, happily, happily would I fare,
Were my dusting through and I'd polished the stair."

Old Melchior leaned on his saddle horn,
"Then send but a gift to the small newborn."
"Oh, gladly, gladly I'd send him one,
Were the hearthstone swept and my weaving done.
As soon as ever I've baked my bread,
I'll fetch Him a pillow for His head,
And a coverlet, too," Befana said.
"When the rooms are aired and the linen dry,
I'll look at the Babe."

But the Three rode by.

She worked for a day and a night and a day,
Then, gifts in her hands, took up her way.
But she never could find where the Christ Child lay.
And still she wanders at Christmastide,
Houseless, whose house was all her pride.
Whose heart was tardy, whose gifts were late;
Wanders and knocks at every gate,
Crying, "Good people, the bells begin!
Put off your toiling and let love in!"

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