Category Archives: La Befana

Round the Star

Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

Twelfth Night used to be a really big deal, a celebration rivaling that of Christmas Day. Ever the champion of the underdog, I am here today to champion Twelfth Night, too. If you are inclined to feelings of melancholy or disappointment after Christmas Day has passed, these Twelve Days––and especially Twelfth Night and Epiphany, which provide a proper send-off to the season––are just what’s needed to help get you through that. For all we talk about maintaining links to the past, perhaps it is this, more than anything, that offers the best reason behind keeping an obscure old holiday like Twelfth Night in our contemporary world. Twelfth Night helps us feel more rounded, more complete. This is the value of Twelfth Night.

My family never did celebrate Twelfth Night when I was younger, but we did mark Epiphany. My mom calls it “Little Christmas.” I do remember one year feeling kind of down after Christmas Day had passed, and she told me, “It’s ok, we still have Little Christmas ahead.” Our little tabletop tinsel Christmas tree, the one she bought decades ago at Lord & Taylor and which we set up at our house now each year, meant a lot more to me after that. Maybe because the tree is little, just like Mom’s “Little Christmas.”

Years later, after my first internship at the Shaker Press, Brother Arnold Hadd and I exchanged so many letters. In one of those letters, that winter that followed my internship, he wrote about the Shakers’ Christmas celebration. It included things like “shaking the tree” (for presents, I think) and their tradition of a Swedish smörgåsbord (this, a tradition handed them by Brother Ted, who I never did meet), and yes, Twelfth Night. There is some confusion about when Twelfth Night actually falls, but I trust the Shakers on this. They celebrate on the evening of the this day, the Eleventh Day of Christmas. I think the confusion comes out of the way we reckon our days now as opposed to the way our ancestors reckoned theirs. Traditionally, the start of a new day begins at sundown. This is why so many evenings before holidays are so important. Think of Halloween (the Eve of All Hallows) or Christmas Eve. There is a scene in The Bishop’s Wife where Cary Grant’s character convinces Mildred, the bishop’s secretary, to leave work and let him take care of typing the bishop’s sermon. “It’s almost Christmas Eve,” he tells Mildred. “You must have shopping to do.” It’s the afternoon of the 24th when he tells her this. Even then, just 70 years ago when this film was made, there was a general understanding that Christmas Eve began once the sun went down and that was the ushering in of Christmas. As for Twelfth Night, the Shakers believe (as do I) that Twelfth Night ushers in the Twelfth Day of Christmas. As such, it begins with the setting sun on the 5th of January. Twelfth Night has, as well, another name: Eve of the Epiphany.

So the traditional English Twelfth Night was a fun filled party with, no doubt, lots of ale and cider and punch, lots of food, and music, dancing, and games. When I picture a Twelfth Night party in my head, it looks a lot like the party that Old Fezziwig throws for his employees in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is, alas, not much celebrated here in the States. Inspired by our Shaker friends, though, we’ve hosted a few Twelfth Night dinners in the past. That, I think, is a good start.

In Italy, la Befana will make her rounds tonight, and in Latin America, los Tres Reyes, the Three Kings, will be doing the same. All of them will be delivering gifts; they are the last of the Midwinter gift bearers. Their stories are intertwined. Epiphany––a celebration older even than Christmas itself––marks the day the Magi arrived after their long journey, following that star, to see the child born in a barn. They arrived with gifts for the child, and so it is no surprise that they are amongst our Midwinter gift bearers. In Italy, though, the legends get a little more interesting, wrapped up as they are with a kindly old witch. There, it is said that the Magi stopped at la Befana’s and asked her to join them on their journey. They found her sweeping her floor. “No, no,” she told them, “I’m too busy with my housework!” And so the Magi went on their way. But as she swept, la Befana grew remorseful that she had not gone with them, and so she stopped her sweeping, hopped on her broom, and left her home in search of the Magi and the child. But she never found them. Each year on the Eve of the Epiphany, she sets out on her journey again, in search of the child, delivering small presents to good boys and girls, and coal for the not so good ones.

I have known lots of Befanas in my day. It comes with the territory when you are of Italian descent. Women and men who clean and clean and clean, and who take great pride in their clean homes. Which is a wonderful thing, of course, but you know that they would’ve said no to the Magi, too, just like la Befana herself did at that first Christmas. Where does she even come from, la Befana? Well, she is an old hag… and so is the earthly goddess at Midwinter in the circular nature of the year: Born in springtime, fair maiden in summer, mother in autumn, old woman in winter. A cycle repeating with each orbit around the sun, the story told again and again.

Closer to home, it’s not been the happiest Christmas for us, after losing my dad in February. I’d say all of us in my family are all doing well, but we are all aware, too, that Dad is missing and there have been a few days this season where I’ve been plain sad and melancholy. There is another tradition for Twelfth Night, in which the Yuletide decorations are taken down. This, too, makes me a little melancholy. In case you haven’t noticed, I am a bit in love with Christmas. There is much about our celebration these days that is grating and irksome, but Seth and I, we do a very good job of keeping these things at bay, leaving to the best of our abilities only what is pure and essential. And so Christmas is in this little home a truly extraordinary time––a time outside ordinary time––and it does make us sad to see it go. Many years, and this may very well be one of them, we follow another, even older tradition: the idea that Christmas and Yuletide run all the way to Candlemas Eve, the First of February. This is an idea that is more aligned with the planet’s natural rhythm, for with Candlemas we reach the next cross-quarter day after the Midwinter Solstice. With it, the earth shifts toward spring, for winter is then beginning to wane: astronomically, we’ll be, at that point, halfway between the solstice and the spring equinox. Our ancestors enjoyed their Yuletide greenery all the way to Candlemas but not beyond… keeping it in the house any later than the First of February was an invitation for bad luck.

If you are celebrating Twelfth Night, or if you have memories of celebrating in days past, please tell us about it by leaving a comment below. I hope you are. It is our chance to send Old Father Christmas on his way in style. He deserves as much as that, no?


Image: Christmas pyramids from Germany’s Erzgebirge region can be quite elaborate, but ours is a simple one, featuring three carolers, one of them holding a traditional caroling star. Singing round the star was a common Twelfth Night practice though Northern Europe centuries ago. I hope it still is.


Faith & Hope & Sweet Release


I have always, since I can remember, been fascinated with the foil that is wrapped around chocolates. The process is always the same: I unwrap the chocolate, pop it in my mouth, and while I’m eating it, I take the foil wrapping and smooth it out with my fingertips against the table or any smooth surface I happen to be near. I like watching the foil transform from crinkled to smooth. Sometimes I save the smoothed-out foils. Sometimes I use them in projects, like the cover for the Christmas mixtape I recorded for Seth after I first met him, back in December of 1995. I miss mixtapes for many reasons… not the least of which is the artwork I’d get to do on the covers. A star of foil seemed just right for this tape that went to Seth and to a few other select friends I was missing that Christmas over 20 years ago.

The star is central to Christmas and to the journey of the Magi. As such, it is central to Epiphany, the celebration of this Twelfth Day of Christmas, which is traditionally considered the day the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem. And with Epiphany, our Christmas celebration comes to a close. The Magi, those three old men, have traversed the desert, following that star, and they have arrived at the stable to bring gifts to the child. La befana, the kind Italian witch, has made her rounds, too. As the story goes, at that first Christmas oh so long ago, the Magi stopped at la befana’s house and asked her to join them on their journey, but she declined the invitation. “I have so much housework to do!” she told them. And so the Magi left her home and continued on their way.

But as she swept her floors, la befana began to feel a bit remorseful, and once she finished her sweeping, she set out to find the Magi. But she never did find them, nor the child they had told her about. She searched and searched but to no avail. Still, to this day, on each Twelfth Night, la befana sets out upon her broom to seek them. As she makes her rounds, searching high and low for the child and the three kings, la befana leaves small presents for all the sleeping children. And now, on Epiphany, she resumes her sweeping, and sweeps Christmas away for another year.

Tradition would have us remove all the Christmas greenery today. But if you are not yet ready to part with your tree or other decorations, we can offer you another older tradition to follow, for some would consider Christmas to last until the First of February, which is Candlemas Eve. There is some strong basis for this in the Pagan tradition, as it is on the First of February that Yule gives way to Imbolc in the wheel of the seasonal round: it is a cross-quarter day, the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

In our home, we close the celebration of Christmas on Epiphany night with a simple ceremony at the front door, outside on the front porch. We will gather up all who are in the home and we will each take turns writing with chalk on the lintel above the front door the numbers and letters and symbols of a traditional inscription. This year, it will read as follows: 20+C+M+B+17. These are the initials of each of the Magi (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), punctuated by crosses, blanketed on either side by the year. For me, the inscribing is always accompanied by a silent prayer that no one will be missing when we gather next to write the inscription again. All the year through, though Christmas be gone, still the inscription is there to remind us of Christmas’s presence as we pass each day through that portal. The inscription is a magic charm of sorts, protecting the house and those who pass through that doorway, harboring the goodwill and spirit of Old Father Christmas.

And so we follow that star. May it always be in our sights and in our hearts and in our dealings with our fellow companions on this old earth. And one last time this year, we say unto you: “Merry Christmas.”


I called that 1995 mixtape “Faith & Hope & Sweet Release.” There was so much new and wonderful music that year: “Now it is Christmas Eve” from Garrison Keillor, “By the Fireside” from Turtle Island String Quartet, and an original song for Christmas by Jane Siberry whose lyrics lent the mixtape its title. Our old pick up truck has a cassette player and we still listen to that mixtape each Christmas. It never grows old.


Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

The close of the Christmas season begins here, and just as our Christmas celebration began in the nighttime hours of Christmas Eve, so the same comes Twelfth Night. If this is confusing (that Twelfth Night should come on the Eleventh Day), remember that even today, much of the way we celebrate holidays is based on traditional reckoning of time, in which a new day begins at sunset. This is why the nights before holidays are so important: Consider Christmas Eve, of course, but other nighttime events, as well, like Hallowe’en (the Eve of All Hallow’s) and at Easter, Holy Saturday, with its vigil Mass that begins only with the setting sun. And so Epiphany Eve, which is tonight, ushers in Epiphany the next day. The night is best known, though, as Twelfth Night, and it has long been a night of great festivity. When it comes to Twelfth Night, the more raucous the celebration, the better. It is a true vestige of the Roman Saturnalia festival of ancient midwinters, right down to one of the most common Twelfth Night customs: the baking of a cake that contains a hidden bean. In some places, it’s a bean and a pea. He who finds the bean is crowned King of the Bean; she who finds the pea, Queen of the Pea. These folks get places of honor at the revels. In the old engraving above, which pictures a grand old Twelfth Night gathering, you can be sure there is a King of the Bean somewhere amongst those folks, and maybe even a Queen of the Pea.

I am always fascinated by images of rousing old parties like this. I think it’s because I am the most awkward person at parties; and yet I picture the Van Tassels’ Quilting and Merrymaking Frolic in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or the Fezziwiggs’ Christmas Eve party in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and I am pretty confident I’d have a blast at either one. There would be fiddler and a caller and an abundance of food and steaming punch and, well… if you have a party like this, I hope you’ll send me an invitation. I’ll be there with bells on.

There is very little of this Twelfth Night festivity nowadays, especially here in the States where the colonial Puritans did a very good job of setting the pace for work, work, work… not to mention putting the cabbash on Christmas in general. But Christmas survived in this country despite their best efforts. Twelfth Night, however, might be considered a casualty. But I think we need Twelfth Night. Old Father Christmas comes to be with us each year for a visit that lasts but a couple of weeks. It’s only right to send him on his way again in proper fashion, and in our house, that means a celebration––even a small one if that is all we have left in us––is in order. Dinner should be a good one, and a festive Christmas punch is a nice accompaniment, as would be the same wassail we drank on New Year’s Day. Friends and family would be a great addition, as well as good music and an old game or two, like Snapdragon: Fill a shallow bowl with golden raisins and pour a bit of brandy over them. Darken the room (like the darkness of midwinter) and carefully set light to the brandy. Play the game while the brandy is aflame: Each person in the room snatches a raisin from the bowl and makes a wish upon the raisin before popping it into his or her mouth. This old game from Scotland may sound dangerous, but it’s less so than it would seem. Be careful all the same, of course. Each person’s wish should be granted before the next Twelfth Night… or so the story goes.

Christmas ends each year with Epiphany, which will come tomorrow. New things, meanwhile, are just stirring. Twelfth Night and Epiphany usher in the Carnival season. In place like Acadiana, tonight’s revels roll over into the parades and balls hosted by the local krewes that culminate with Mardi Gras, which this year falls on February 9. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. As for Epiphany, it marks the day the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem after nights of following the star that announced the birth of the Christ child. One of the most endearing figures in the story is an old Italian woman who is known as la befana. She and the Magi are the last of the midwinter gift bearers. Those three kings (los tres reyes) are the ones who bring presents tonight in Spain and Latin America, but in Italy, this is the job of la befana. As the story goes, at that first Christmas oh so long ago, the Magi stopped at la befana’s house and asked her to join them on their journey, but she declined the invitation. “I have so much housework to do!” she told them. And so the Magi left her home and continued on their way.

But as she swept her floors, la befana began to feel a bit remorseful, and once she finished her sweeping, she set out to find the Magi. But she never did find them, nor the child they had told her about. She searched and searched but to no avail. Still, to this day, on each Twelfth Night, la befana sets out upon her broom to seek them. As she makes her rounds, searching high and low for the child and the three kings, la befana leaves small presents for all the sleeping children. Even the ones who were naughty: they get coal, but la befana’s coal is sweet as candy, so even her coal is a nice present to receive.

It is la befana’s job to sweep away Christmas, and so she does this each year. She sweeps and sweeps, and by the time she’s done with her sweeping tomorrow at Epiphany, Christmas will be done. The Magi will return to their distant countries, and Old Father Christmas, whether he was welcome or welcome not, will be on his way back to the Northland. But the wheel of the seasonal round will continue to turn and new days of wonder will be upon us, even as we just begin to miss the Yuletide visitors who came to spend these dark midwinter nights in our company.


Image: “Twelfth Night Merry-Making in Farmer Shakeshaft’s Barn,” an engraving by Hablot Knight Brown (better known as “Phiz”) from the book Mervyn Clitheroe by William Harrison Ainsworth, c.1850. Today’s chapter of the Convivio Book of Days is a slightly moderated version of last year’s chapter for Twelfth Night. Like a visit from an old friend, or from old Father Christmas, slightly older, slightly wiser.