La Befana

Here is a holiday story for you this December. Renaissance Press is creating a tour of different websites where authors can showcase their fiction and they invited me to participate and share a short story with readers.

 

This post is part of the Renaissance Holiday Blog Roll. Find out what it’s all about here and check out some other great stories!!

 

I hope that you enjoy this story and others!

 

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La Befana

By Derek Newman-Stille

My Dearest Daughter,

We witches have a long tradition and it is a tradition of magic, but also a tradition of misunderstanding. Words are our magic – they shape the world around us, change it, sing it into something new… but words have also been used to trap us, contain us, erase us.

Words of condemnation provoked the burning times. Words spoken out of fear have constantly hounded us, plagued us, and hunted us.

So it is with a heavy heart that I write these words to you, my sweet Sofia, my first and only daughter, because they are words that lay a heavy burden. And the first burden will be the loss of the name that I gave you, pronounced you into existence with.

Now, as I was for many years, you will be called La Befana.

You know what the name means. Some say it is borrowed from the Feast of the Epiphany, but it has a longer line than that. It is the name of the Yule witch, the witch who guides the depths of winter.

You know of La Befana from the ornaments on our tree, the little ones that you used to make out of felt, pounded into the shape of the Christmas witch, old and wandering like the winter itself. But, your job will be more than filling shoes with candy or lumps of coal. Your job will be one of sweeping. That is why you carry your broom. Your job will be to sweep away the cobwebs and dust of rage that settle in homes, that collect in the corners and under the beds… the bits of emotional detritus that fall off of human beings and cling to them if they are not careful.

It is a thankless job.

You will only be remembered for bringing the sweets placed in shoes, which, as you know, a mother does for her children. You may be left a small glass of wine or a plate of food as an offering, but these are only tokens and generally eaten and drunk by parents. They are empty gestures now.

Your thanks will be knowing that all of the darkness of winter is cleared away for joy – to bring something new into the houses you visit and give people a chance, even just a small one, to escape from the shadows of their past. You will be bringing chances of renewal.

Our myths have changed over time. They have shifted to fit new myths and new stories, but our traditions go back over the ages. Now they tell a story that La Befana was found by the three wise men, the magi on their way to search for Jesus. They say that the Magi asked her for directions since they had seen his star in the sky but couldn’t see it any longer. She provided them with shelter from the night, a clean place to rest because she, with her broom, was the best housekeeper in the village. They say that she would have gone with them to see the new child, but she initially told them that she had too much housekeeping to do, locked into her matronly duties as she was, but later in the night she changed her mind, overcome with a desire to see this new child and sought out to find him, but wasn’t able to. So now, she is doomed to wander the world searching for this new baby, this perceived bringer of light, and so she leaves treats for the good children that she comes across in her search. She would come to act as a caretaker for all of the good children of the world the same as she desired to do for the new infant.

Of course, that is only one of the stories about us, and one that imagines us to be immortal rather than believing that we are a sisterhood passing our traditions down from one generation to the next. We date back to before the stories of Jesus and other legends with roots in Ancient Rome, where we were given our duties by Stenia, the goddess of the new year and purification. We were her priestesses, charged with cleaning out ritual impurities and cleansing spaces to make way for new changes and create a place of magic. We would collect twigs from her sacred grove to cleanse with, forming them into a broom and sweep the floors of the temple, not just removing the dirt from the temples, but removing something more complicated, a miasma.

You will find a broom. You probably remember seeing it around our home when you were a girl. It is the dusty old one that looks like twigs held together to a branch. You will need this. It isn’t just a broom, it is a collection of trees – of new growth. It is a manifestation of bringing new growth into the home. You will eventually add your own twigs of new growth to it, contributing to the broom of the new with the broom of the old. The original twigs came from the goddess’ grove and who knows if they still remain. Twigs fall out and new twigs are added. Of course, you will not be able to bring them from the grove. You will have to add them from the trees and bushes that speak to you on your travels… and they will call out to you. You won’t be able to mistake them.

You will start to look like I did… a hag. It is part of the act of cleaning out so much of the past. You become the past that you sweep. Your wrinkles and crevices become a map of all of the histories you sweep out. You will have the permanent look of soot on your face and body that I did. Some of what you sweep away will stick to you, bringing you half into the shade.

No one tells bringers of light that they will have to walk through the shadows and that the shadows sometimes cling to us. But you will still be able to be a creature of cheer. You are the Christmas Witch.

Dear Befana,

I wish you so much luck and joy in your quest because there is so much joy to be had and you need to revel in that joy. Drink the wine that remains as offerings that parents don’t gobble away first. Take time to see the happy smiles on children’s faces as they wake to sweets left in their shoes because it isn’t the treats that matter – it is what you have done, that sweeping away of collected miasma. And remember me. We are all La Befana. When you crawl across rooftops and down chimneys to sweep houses of detritus, we are all sweeping them with you. But don’t let words define you. Don’t let even my words define you. I feel as though I have pronounced a doom upon you, and perhaps I have. We have been at risk so many times before for what we are. People see the shades that cling to us. They see the soot before they see that we are cleaning for them… and everyone seems to fear an older women. They fear that knowledge we have acquired over the course of our lives. They fear that we know something that they don’t… and, of course we do. You will know more than all of us, just as your daughter will eventually know more than you. We add our wisdom generation after generation. But there is always something lost as well. I hope that you understand why I am allowing that loss and the important role you have.

Your mother, always and forever,

La Befana

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