Category Archives: La Befana

Following that Star


St. Titus’s and St. Gregory’s Day

If you were lucky enough to have time off from work for Christmas, it is probably over by now. Many of us, myself included, are back to work today, this Monday after New Year’s. The immersion into ordinary time begins again. Christmas, however, is not quite over. There are still two more days besides this one. To end it properly, you would do well to mark its close on Tuesday night with Twelfth Night and on Wednesday with Epiphany. For today, this Tenth Day of Christmas, we have one last contemplative day. It is the feast day of a number of saints in the church calendar: St. Titus and St. Gregory, and also St. Rigobert and St. Ramon.

There are no traditional customs for this day. So aside from returning to work, it seems to me a good day (or evening, in our case) to prepare for the festivities to come. For two years now on this day we’ve been sharing with you our recipe for Three Kings Cakes, which we make most years in these waning days of Christmas. Sharing it with you today gives you time to bake the cakes so they are ready for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. The recipe yields three cakes, cakes you will prepare in three loaf pans, so gathering three pans is a good place to begin. You will end up with one cake for each of the Magi, who have traditionally been called Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, though no one knows who they were really. As the story goes, it took the Magi all this time to travel through the desert, and seeing the child lying in the straw was their great epiphany. The cakes we make in their honor are distinctly not modern. Their flavors are flavors of the ancient world, flavors the Magi would have known well: honey and rose water. We happen to sell a wonderful rose water, made at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine. If you’re local and you need some to bake these cakes, let me know and together we’ll find a way to get you a bottle in time.

Come tomorrow night, the last players in our Yuletide tale, all of them gift bearers, will make their entry onto the stage: those three kings, and also la Befana, the good Italian witch who is so busy at her housework each year, just like most of the Italian women I have known in my life, and I have known so very many. Grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, cummaras (cummari, to be proper), all of them busy at their work. And all of us, too: so busy, we don’t take time for what’s truly important. When la Befana realized she really did want to go with the Magi to see the child, it was too late. And still she wanders, searching for the child. Keep in mind we will not be remembered for our efficiency once we are gone. We will, however, be remembered for what kindness and happiness we have bestowed. These cakes proffer both.


makes three cakes

For the Batter
1 cup butter
generous 3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups currants
3 cups applesauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
4 cups flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream together the butter and the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla. Beat smooth before adding the remaining ingredients. Grease 3 loaf pans (about 8″ x 4″ x 3″ or so) and divide the batter amongst the pans. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick poked into the center of each cake comes out dry. Let the cakes cool in their pans on a rack.

For the Syrup
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
2 tablespoons rose water

Once the cakes are baked, combine the syrup ingredients, except for the rose water, in a saucepan over medium heat. Once the sugar dissolves, add the rose water. Remove the cinnamon stick and the cloves and then pour the hot syrup over the cakes in their pans, divided equally amongst the three cakes. The syrup will soak into the cakes. Allow to cool completely before unmolding from the pans. Serving the three cakes on three platters makes for a nice presentation on Epiphany Day or on Twelfth Night.


Image: The star upon our Christmas tree. Seth & I discovered just last night a really lovely illuminated star high above a home near to Lake Avenue on our street, but alas, tonight when I went to photograph it, it was gone. Be that as it may, this star does the job nicely.


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An Epiphany


E l’epifania tutte le feste porta via! This is an old Italian saying that translates to “And with Epiphany all the holidays are over.” And so they are…until the next one, of course (and you can be sure I’ll have something interesting for you tomorrow).

But with Epiphany, the Christmas festivities come to an end. Epiphany marks the day the Magi arrived at the Bethlehem stable to see the child that was born. Their journey, following that star, is said to have taken twelve days…the same as our journey through the Christmas season. They sought the child of wonder and so have we. They crossed the desert land and we crossed from one year to another.

We know very little about the three kings we celebrate today. We don’t even know if there actually were three; three, nonetheless, is a solid, stable, number. Most of what we know is handed down through tradition, which tells us that the Magi were three wise men from the East, named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and that they brought three gifts to the child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all of which have rich and varied symbolic meaning. These were gifts fit for royalty, but also refer to the child’s future roles: Gold for kingship, frankincense for the priesthood, myrrh for death and burial.

While Twelfth Night generally is the last of the raucous Christmas revels, often with a Lord of Misrule and a King of the Bean and a Queen of the Pea and all of the ensuing fun madness, Epiphany, today, is generally a quieter time. I think this is because we are actually saying goodbye to an old friend: Christmas has come to stay with us these two weeks past, and now the guest must be on his way. For some of us, Christmas is a guest we look forward to showing the door early on in the visit, but for others, like those in this house, the closing of Christmastide is full of mixed emotions. Yes, it’s nice to get back to order and routine, but we know we’re going to miss what sets Christmas outside of ordinary time. Once Epiphany is done and la befana has swept the remnants of Christmas away, there will be considerably less magic present. We have to wait another year for the twinkling lights of the winter solstice to return, along with the intoxicating scent of balsam and cloves and the wonderful tastes of Yule and the songs we get to hear and sing just at this time of year.

In some traditions, Christmas continues all the way to Candlemas Eve, the First of February. 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.

But for most of us, Christmas ends now, and the greenery and decorations are supposed to come down with Epiphany, too. There is old belief that for as much greenery that remains in your home after Epiphany, you will have that many goblins move in to your home to spend the next year with you. Whether you believe in that or not, most people will remove the Christmas decorations tonight or soon thereafter. Greenery from nature should be returned to nature. If you have room in your garden to keep the old Christmas tree for a year, do so. We tuck ours in a quiet corner, near the bamboo and the mango tree, and come next Winter Solstice, the tree will fuel our celebratory fire for that darkest night of the year as we welcome Yule once again. This act, which has become our tradition, is so much more respectful to your tree than tossing it out at the curb for trash.

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+15. These are the initials of each of the Magi, 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 this same inscription. In some places, or in earlier times, the inscription might be written by the Star Boys, like those pictured in the old postcard above. Here in Lake Worth, we haven’t many Star Boys, and all the same, I’m happier that we get to write it ourselves, each letter and number in handwriting I recognize, the hands of the people in this house. 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.


Image: A postcard depicting the Star Boys’ Singing Procession, an Epiphany tradition in Russia, Scandinavia, and Central Europe, c.1916. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


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 Halloween and Holy Saturday at Easter. 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, much like you’d see in the old engraving pictured above.

I am always fascinated by images of old parties like that. 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 grand old time at parties like this. I would love to be right there in the Twelfth Night revels pictured above.

There is very little of this Twelfth Night festivity nowadays, especially here in the States. 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. 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 dangerous 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. Epiphany 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.