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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Befana Day

I spent a month in Spain and I returned with two things (not counting the sinus infection and crippling addiction to Afrin): the right way to make cafe con leche and Befana Day.

In America, cafe con leche refers to adding warm milk to coffee. But if you have a perv-y enough barista who wants to talk about the fact that you're reading Portnoy's Complaint in his cafe, you can go behind the counter and learn how to brew coffee in milk much in the same way chai is tea brewed in milk. So I came home brewing my coffee in milk and making really fantastic cafe con leche which always impresses people when I make it for them.

The other thing I brought home was actually encountered for the first time in Italy but I celebrated it for the first time in Spain. The year before, I spent a month in Italy and was staying in Florence during Epiphania. I was staying in this fantastic 12th century palazzo overlooking the site where Dante's wife was born. The tradition of this particular hotel was to have guests sign this huge guestbook with a small story about themselves and then you could read back who stayed in your room before you. We spent a whole night reading through stories as well as following the travels of this man, Matt, who stayed at the hotel every year and his search for love.

I googled him just now and couldn't find him. I wonder if he's happy.

Anyway, one night, we were reading the book and sitting with the owner's daughter, discussing how to get to San Gimignano and she told us none of the trains would run on the day we were planning to go because of Befana Day. What is Befana Day, we obviously asked as Americans, and she told us this story:

Once there was a woman named Befana. She was cooking and cleaning and just trying to get through her day when three men came to her house and asked directions to Bethlehem. They told her that a baby had been born who was G-d in human form and they asked if she wanted to come with them to see the new baby. Befana said no because she thought she had already used up too much time giving them directions and she went back to her cleaning and cooking.

A little while later, she thought about how she had just missed this amazing opportunity because she had been so focused on this end goal of having the house clean and dinner cooked. She ran out of the house with her broom and apron and tried to find the three travelers (who were, of course, the three wise men). Befana still goes from house to house to this day, trying to find the baby and leaves gifts and candy at each house she visits.

Epiphany, or Befana Day, is celebrated even more than Christmas in Europe.

There is a second version of the story:

Befana was an old woman who was finally a mother after many many years of infertility. The king learned that a baby would be born who would be G-d in human form and he ordered all baby boys to be murdered. Her son was killed in front of her but in her grief, she refused to accept the loss. Instead, she piled together all the things she had made for him, all the hope she had infused into these tangible items while she waited for him, and went out wandering around the world with this sack on her back.

One night, she came to a manger and in her grief, she thought she had found her son who she believed to be lost rather than dead. She placed these items in the manger and the baby's family saw how deeply this woman grieved from not having her child that they named her Befana, the giver of gifts and gave her a special blessing. One night out of the year, she is a mother to all of the children in the world. On that night, she travels from home to home, leaving presents for children, to remind them how much they are wanted.

The hotel owner's daughter explained why her children's shoes were set out in the hallway. They were waiting for Befana to come that night and leave them candy and presents. I asked her if she would leave me candy if I left my shoes in the hallway and she laughed for a long time and then said, "I don't need another child. Get your own mother to leave you presents."

The next year, I was in Spain during Epiphany with the same friend and I left candy in her shoes at night for her to find in the morning. And that was my first time celebrating Epiphany.

It may seem strange for an observant Jewish American woman to celebrate Epiphany each year, but I have celebrated it since that trip to Spain. At first, I gave candy to all of my students at school, leaving it on their desks instead of in their shoes. Once the twins were born, I would line up their Robeez in the hallway and leave them lollipops. This year, the ChickieNob pointed out that leaving candy inside shoes is sort of gross and that she would rather draw a picture of shoes on a piece of paper and place that outside her door in order to give Befana more room to leave her candy and presents.

The twins started asking about Befana Day back in October and have a long list of questions: how does she know which candy I like? can you send her an email? why does she only come when we're sleeping? On January 5th, we'll make a Tuscan meal of caramella pasta (which means "sweetie" in Italian) stuffed with balsamic soaked potatoes and a Befana cake (which is the European equivalent to the King cake) with an uncooked bean placed inside. And on January 6th, the twins will wake up to the toys we've been hiding in the dresser drawers and candy that I've been squirreling away for the occasion.

Why am I telling you all of this right now? Because it is your do-over if you need it. For a long time, my birthday each year was so crappy that we started counting my Hebrew birthdate as my do-over. So if I was disappointed with the day, I knew there was an "out," a "do-over" for the holiday so we could try again. It took some of the pressure off the day.

Perhaps you are not celebrating Christmas the way you wanted to be celebrating. Perhaps the day sucks and you wish you were home alone or you had high hopes for the celebration but it's turning out very different from what you planned. Know that January 6th is a do-over and it is technically the 12th night of Christmas therefore, it is still part of the holiday.

Merry Christmas on Thursday--much love and candy canes.


PaleMother said...

Awesome post. Happy holidays, Mel. You rock.



Emily said...

Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing the story of Befana Day.
Thank you for giving us the idea of a do-over...

Happy Holidays!

Delenn said...

Something to think about. Thank you, Mel. Happy Holidays!

Rebecca said...

Thanks for this. Chag urim sameach!

Suzanna Catherine said...

I love the idea of a do-over! Thanks for the inspiring post.

nonlineargirl said...

I know this was only a minor aside to the main story, but now I want cafe con leche. During my first pregnancy my husband and I went to Spain and I suspended all pregnancy dietary rules - ate lots of fish, drank cafe con leche every morning and had some wine at night. It was lovely. Never found candy in my shoes, however.

Lori said...

I love this. On so many counts.

Especially the concept of a do-over. Not that I need one. Yet.

bleu said...

Happy Solstice, and Holiday's Mel. I hope this season is filled with joy and love and REST for you and yours.

Thank you for ALL you do.

VA Blondie said...

Thanks for that post! I think I may need a do-over this year.

Kristin said...

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a blessed New Year.

Another beautiful post.

Michelle said...

That is beautiful. I love the idea. Thank you!

Happy Holidays Mel!

nancy said...

You have led such a freaking cool life so far. I find myself being jealous a lot! :)

Happy Holidays right back atcha.

Vee said...

That bought back memories of my mum telling me the story of the Befana when I was kid...thank you.

Off to a huge Christmas family feast now.
Have wonderful day.

battynurse said...

Beautiful post and a fantastic tradition.

Coffeegrl said...

I had never heard of Befana Day. Thanks for sharing as well as the wonderful idea of a "do-over." I don't know why it never occurred to me to have a do-over birthday or Christmas or whatever but I love it! Several times this year I've thought that things haven't been panning out in all the ways I might like; I might just start having some do-overs!

areyoukiddingme said...

January 6 was my grandmother's birthday, and also the latest day we could have our Christmas tree up. Mom's rules...

It would be nice to have a do-over, and I think we used that day last year, because my husband wasn't home for Christmas. The stories are kind of sad, though.

Brenda said...

Beautiful post, Mel, as always!

Mrs. Spit said...

What a wonderful thing. I have always celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas with whatever children happen to be around me. The same idea with the shoes, but celebrated on December 5th.

m said...

Yes. A do-over. An epiphany. I love this. Thank you.

Phoebe said...

I always wished we celebrated Befana Day. I know my mother did when she was a child, but many of those traditions were lost as being "ethnic" was not cool in my parents' generation.

Cassandra said...

I grew up aware of Epiphany (though not actively celebrating) as a wise men-based holiday but have never heard of Befana. I love it when you teach me something new!

JamieD said...

I have never heard of Befana Day! I don't know which idea I like better - Befana Day or having a 'do-over' holiday.


Anonymous said...

I've never heard of this before, but what a great tradition! I agree with ChickieNob that candy inside shoes is a little sketch :)

Choicemumtobe said...

My god you write beautifully not only was i there with you I was there with Befana :)

And while I didn't need it this year I'm loving the do-over - you're a genius!

Look forward to reading more!

Bea said...

I will always know which blog to turn to for cultural insights like this. Although I'm up to my ears in candy at the moment. Maybe a nice coffee would go down a treat on Befana day, but not in my shoes. Still, I like the idea of a do-over day. Just what many in the trenches of infertility need this time of year.