Although this story is set in ‘a land betwixt and between’ it features a character from Italian folk tradition, La Befana, the Christmas Witch. Legend has it that she received a visit from the wise men as they sought the baby Jesus. She was the best housekeeper in the village, and so they lodged with her on their search for the Christ child.
They invited her to travel with them, but she declined, because she had too much housework.
She regretted her decision, and wanted to give gifts to the newborn king, but it was too late. She couldn’t find the magi or the holy child. To this day she rides about on her broom, searching for him. On January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, she leaves small toys or candy for good children, and coal, onions, or garlic for those who have been naughty. In this way she can atone, and satisfy her desire to honor the baby Jesus, for after all, the spirit of the Christ can be found within every child.
Her roots date back to pre-Christian times, and scholars have concluded that her name connects her to the Roman goddess Strenia, who was associated with the giving of gifts at New Years. The following is a Neopagan setting of themes relating to the Child of Light whose birth symbolizes the return of the sun at solstice. In it, you will discover the three phases of all women and of Goddess: Mother, Maiden, and Crone.
May it honor the spirit of La Befana and the purity deep in the heart of every child.
Once upon a time, in a land betwixt and between, lived two little girls, Beatrice and Bella. They loved each other as best friends do, and played together nearly all the time.
One midwinter day Beatrice walked through the snowy woods alone, when she spied a wooden chest with curved lid and leather bindings. It was almost as wide as her arm was long, and half as long, sitting at the base of the tallest tree. A light dusting of snow rested on the lid.
She tested the latch with her mitten-covered hand, and it opened. To her amazement, she saw that it was filled with golden coins. The shock took her breath away. All other thoughts and feelings stopped mid-flight, as she gazed on the treasure. Such wealth at her fingertips.
Numbness gave way to exhilaration as her mind filled with visions of the things she could buy. She could hardly breathe, and her whole body tingled. She pictured mountains of sweets, clothes fine enough for a princess, a fur muff instead of woolen mittens to warm her hands. Oh, and of course, gifts for those she loved; mamma, papa, and Bella.
Bella! She must tell her friend. She closed the chest, hid it with a covering of snow, and set out immediately. On the way she began to wonder how the chest got there, who might have left it or lost it. Would they return for it?
Was it a gift for her from Fortuna, the goddess of luck and fortune, or was it temptation? Would it be stealing to keep it, or would it be a slight to the gods to leave it be? She needed Bella’s help to work it out. Beatrice knocked at her friend’s door.
“Grab your coat. I have something to show you,” she said.
“What? Have you found another bird’s nest or some rusting musket balls? I’ve seen them all before. Stay here with me where it’s warm and let’s have some tea by the fire.”
“No, it’s none of those things. Oh please, you can’t sit by the fire when...oh, I want to tell, you, but I would rather surprise you.”
She grabbed her friend’s coat and hat from their pegs, and in no time the girls stood in front of the tall tree. Beatrice knelt before a lump of snow which she cleared away to reveal the treasure chest it cloaked. In short order the two found themselves gazing upon the gold, more wealth than either had ever seen in a single place.
“We’re rich!” Bella exclaimed
“But is it ours? What if someone lost it? What if they need it, and come back for it?” Beatrice asked.
“Finders keepers, losers, weepers,” Bella said. “It’s ours.”
She reached into the chest with both hands, filling both fists with coins which she promptly stuffed into her pockets.
Beatrice still wasn’t sure, but before she could object, a sharp, raspy voice startled her.
“Who dares to apprehend my treasure?”
The girls turned to see the cloaked figure of an old woman.
“Pardon, ma’am.” Beatrice lowered her gaze so as not to offend. “I happened upon your chest in the snow. You were not about. I thought perhaps it had been lost and forgotten.”
“Hoped it had, I rather imagine. But it’s mine, so what’s a fitting response when two greedy little girls try to steal from a grandmother?”
The woman’s voice filled them with fear. When she spoke, they thought they heard the howling of the wind, the crack of trees limbs broken by the storm as they were felled by the wind, and the creak of a gate in need of oil.
“Please forgive us,” Bella said. “We had not determined to take it. It’s only that we’ve never seen such a treasure.”
“Ah,” said the grandmother. “Then perhaps what you need is a lesson. You’re young, and have yet to learn that the greatest treasures in this life cannot be obtained with gold.”
Fear prickled their bellies as they wondered what the old crone would do.
“You must come with me,” she said, “and then you will see who this treasure is for. You will carry my burden for me as we make our way. Follow me.”
You may wonder why they didn’t run home. After all, what harm could this old one do them? Yet there was something hypnotic in her demeanor, and they found themselves compelled to do as she said.
Suddenly, the girls saw a pathway through the snow that they hadn’t noticed before. The chest was heavy, but lighter than they feared. They took turns carrying it, and thus made their way through the forest. They grew weary, yet in their comradeship, found strength to continue. As they rounded a bend in the path, they saw a great light shining through the trees.
In a clearing before them was a sight which took their breath away. A woman clothed in radiance and crowned with stars sat before a cradle of gold. In the cradle lay a babe whose splendor was equal to that of the mother. She spoke.
Her voice was gentle as summer rain, yet somehow carried the strength of thunder.
“Befana, my dear one, I’ve been expecting you.”
“My Lady.” La Befana knelt before the cradle. “My newborn Lord.” She kissed the baby’s forehead. “My heart thrills with joy to meet again.”
The girls, shocked into silence and stillness noticed the crone and the mother looking their way.
“Well,” said La Befana, “don’t just stand there like a pair of dumb oxen. Present the treasure we’ve brought.”
The girls stepped forward. They knew their manners, and that they should lower their eyes in deference. Still, they could not help but stare.
“Who do we have here?” The mother asked.
This is Beatrice and Bella, the crone answered, though they had not told her their names. They thought to help themselves to this treasure.”
“Up to your old tricks again,” the mother said with a chuckle. “You girls have been blessed indeed to fall into the Old One’s snare.”
“Children of all ages are easily lured.” said Befana, but her voice was not unkind.
“Indeed,” said the mother, “and they cause themselves much suffering as they chase imagined treasure. The wise can learn from their mistakes.” Then she looked into Bella’s eyes. “Reach into your pocket, dear girl.”
Her face betrayed her surprise, as she found them empty.
“Stolen treasure never brings joy,” the mother kept her gaze on Bella until she cast her eyes down in shame. Then she looked at Befana. “Does it my old friend?”
“No indeed,” Befana answered, with a laugh that crackled through the clearing.
“Ah,” the mother said, but many are the treasures beyond price. Learning, forgiving, a sense of wonder. Yes, beyond price.”
Bella found the courage to lift her head. The mother’s eyes were soft and loving. All were quiet for a moment.
Beatrice broke the silence. “Your baby is as beautiful as the sun,” she said.
“My baby is the sun, and I am she who births the stars. Only my initiates know my true name, but simply call me Holy Mother, and whenever you have need, I will be with you. Another great treasure you may not buy with mere gold.”
La Befana opened the chest and pulled out two of the golden coins.
“You may take these,” she said, as she handed one to each girl. “They are not to spend, for, as you have seen, they are made of the magical gold. They will dissolve should you present them for payment. Instead, you should hold them while you dream, and fill them with your highest and truest aspirations. Then when the snow melts, and the time comes to plant, bury them as seeds. If you are true to that which connects you to the heart of the Holy Mother, you will reap a harvest of joy.”
The girls felt a warmth inside that defied the winter chill. La Befana and the Mother smiled at them, as the Holy Child’s radiance filled the sky. Then all three faded away, along with cradle, treasure chest, and all.
The two friends made their way back down the path in silence, as they could find no words. They did as La Befana told them, and at midwinter each year, they would both find a golden coin that mysteriously appeared as they went about their day. They knew what to do with these gifts. Each year they dreamed with them through the winter and planted them in the spring as if they were seeds.
Bella and Beatrice lived long lives filled with the sorrow and happiness that come to all people. Whenever they had need they called on the Holy Mother, and even in difficulties, they found strength, peace, and deep joy, the greatest treasures of all.