An Ancient Heroine for Modern Times

I know what you are thinking. A one-toothed puppet of Italy’s legendary Christmas witch seems an unlikely heroine, but drastic times call for drastic measures.

For those of you who haven’t heard of La Befana, she is a character from ancient Italian folklore whose legend is interwoven with the Biblical story of the three Magi.

I became fascinated by this legendary lady after serendipitously meeting Kate West, the author of the children’s book La Befana and the Star, at a mutual friend’s Fourth of July party.

According to the legend of La Befana, when the three Magi were following the Star of Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Holy Child, they got lost.

Hearing that there was a nice woman who was always sweeping her village and keeping it clean, they stopped at La Befana’s to ask for directions.

Though she did not know, she invited them in and fed them. To thank La Befana, they invited her to join them on their journey, but she turned them down because she had too many dishes to do.

What a classic Italian nonna move. Can you imagine? Poor Befana, choosing dishes over an opportunity to meet some adorable little holy child and redeemer of the world!

When they left, it is said that she was so filled with regret that she ran out of the house with her broom still in hand, but could not find the three Magi or the child anywhere. Ever since then, she has been flying around on her broom on the 12th day of Christmas, leaving little gifts for the children, and even some coal, on a perpetual search for the holy child.

Kate’s book recounts this classic legend with a modern culinary twist; inspired by the bright star, La Befana pours all the love that she was not able to give the holy child into star-shaped cookies and has a vision to share them with the world.

Through divine intervention, La Befana succeeds on her mission to deliver her magic stars to all the children of Italy. Everyone who eats them begins to glow with love from within, and soon enough, joyous celebrations filled with music, love, and laughter erupt in all the villages.

I don’t know about you, but as the ills of sexism, racism, ageism, militarism, and climate change continue to rage on, this joyous image has been my saving grace.

I have held it in my mind’s eye for quite some time now, recalling Pope Francis’s words: “Each and every one of us can become a bright candle, a reminder that light will overcome darkness, and never the other way around.”

While I deeply believe all of us can become that bright light, I must confess that overcoming darkness is not an easy feat.

When I met Kate and her puppet La Befana, I was in the midst of a long and drawn-out season of metamorphic darkness.

I was still grieving the loss of my marriage and struggling to bring forth an outward manifestation of a profound spiritual transformation that took place while I was working as a teacher at Ichabod Crane, the school named after the quirky teacher from Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

While I am well versed in teaching the “Who am I?” identity unit, mine at this time was under construction with no date in site for completion.

Any label that I placed after “I AM” during this time period felt like a denial of my totality as a woman and just another way of separating myself from the intricate web of humanity that makes us who “We Are.”

Yet over time, I realized that if there was any hope of me actually getting to a place where I could have a meaningful impact on the collective, it required planting my flag and staking my claim as both a material and spiritual girl living in an interdependent and interconnected world.

Believe me, running around with a puppet of La Befana wasn’t my plan, but when you let go and let God, I must say that sometimes life can be stranger than fiction.

Though I grew up with a Sicilian nonna who prayed the rosary every single morning and ensured that I did every required Catholic sacrament of my youth, for most of my journey I have considered myself to be a SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious)

However, when my marriage fell apart, leaving me to question just what really is eternal, the truth is that God drew me back to the roots of my faith and it was at the feet of Our Lady where I had a mystical encounter that changed the entire trajectory of my life.

Yet with all of the scandals of the Catholic Church, the exclusion of women from ordination, and my reluctance around evangelism, it has been hard to find a way in which to publicly live out my faith in a way that honors my Catholic roots and feels in integrity with my spirit.

However, all of that began to change when I met La Befana.

Prior to meeting Kate and La Befana, the activist in me was running around like an octopus on roller skates, allowing the ills of the world to take away the peace of my heart.

The highly sensitive little girl in me that I rediscovered while working as a teacher at Ichabod Crane Elementary retreated into the shadows of fantasy, believing I could lie in my bed and dream a new world into existence without taking the right next step.

My dream of healing the world with a “Once upon a time…” that doesn’t end with a kiss from a prince but with humanity waking up to our true nature began to seem foolish, juxtaposed as it was against a world hell bent on living out self-fulfilling prophecies of doom and gloom. This dream of mine began to wither. It felt like it was an impossible feat.

But La Befana wouldn’t allow for it.

As I struggled through this season of loneliness and longing, this legendary Christmas witch showed me the type of woman I could become—a woman who takes her deepest heartbreak and transforms it through service and love.

Over time, with this puppet at my side, I finally found the peace that comes from discerning “your lane” and it was then that I had my greatest epiphany.

The world didn’t need me to save it. The world needed me to muster the courage to speak my own messy truth and dare to live a magical legend that changes the world.

You see, the beauty of spending time running around with an ancient crone with one tooth and a mole on her face is that the grips of patriarchal standards of youth and beauty and all the ways in which I had internalized how a woman “ought to behave” began to lose its grip.

So La Befana became my North Star, who anchored me to my own ancestral roots and reminded me that centuries of wisdom live in the strands of my own DNA, and most importantly provided me a way in which to encounter others in celebration of life, love, and lore.

As humanity teeters on the edge of no return, I have realized that if Pope Francis’s vision of a world that is inclusive of all and his call for a Revolution of Tenderness that he made in his 2016 TED Talk is to become a reality, it’s going to require following the Christmas witch of Italy and stepping out on faith.

If you want to learn more check out our website and social media @labefaandfriends!

Dina Gregory

About the Author | Dina Gregory

Dina Gregory is a teacher, writer, artist, and activist. Dina likes to blur the lines between her public and her private life and yearns to be as real and as honest as she can be in all of her interactions. She pushes boundaries to show that we are boundless and divine. When she isn't teaching or writing, you can find her sweating her prayers on the dance floor.

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