The Legend of La Befana

ELEVENTH DAY of CHRISTMAS
Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

Say what you will about 2020… an awful year, to be sure, but a lot of good came of it, too. One Sunday in March a few of my cousins gathered together on Zoom for a virtual gathering, just to visit, just so we could all make each other happy. It’s continued every Sunday since, and grown to include cousins I’ve never met in person, from Atlantic to Pacific and across the ocean, too, to Italy. Zoom Fatigue? Not when you’re with this group.

Last Sunday’s Cousins Zoom included my cousin Marietta reading a story about la Befana, the kindly old witch who brings presents to children in Italy on Twelfth Night. Her sister, my cousin Cammie, acted out the parts as Marietta read the story. And there’s Cammie in the photo above, the kerchief on her head signifying that she is la Befana, her broom for sweeping nearby. Each year my cousins in New York and New England gather for their Little Christmas party on or around Twelfth Night and Epiphany, and each year, la Befana makes her appearance, along with the three kings, all played by other cousins of mine. Alas, no Little Christmas party this year, but I finally got to see Cammie acting out her role. It was just beautiful.

La Befana is our signal that we’re coming to the close of Christmastide. With her broom tonight she will sweep away what’s left of our celebration, leaving the Twelfth Day of Christmas tomorrow open for the Magi and the Epiphany, which is a celebration even older than Christmas itself, marking the day those three old men arrived at the stable to worship the child who was born on Christmas Night. The Church celebrated Epiphany years and years before it began celebrating the birth of Christ, and somewhere along the way, in my family, at least, it picked up the nickname “Little Christmas.” Natalie Kavanagh, a Convivio Book of Days reader, wrote some years ago to tell me that where she comes from, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the day is known as Old Christmas.

But tonight, the Eve of the Epiphany, brings Twelfth Night. It is a cause for celebration that unfortunately doesn’t gather much attention here in the States, but what a lovely custom it is. We have been known to host a big dinner party for family and a few friends on Twelfth Night or Epiphany (an event that obviously won’t be happening this year). In some places, Twelfth Night and Epiphany are celebrations that rival Christmas itself. And why shouldn’t it be so? We spend so much time and energy preparing for Christmas. Is it not right and good to send Christmas off with a bit of ceremony? This is the value of Twelfth Night and Epiphany. This is the value of Little Christmas, and of Old Christmas. They are celebrations that provide us with a sense of completion.

But if all this sounds unbearably sad (especially after such a rough year) and if you, like us, are among those who dearly love the season, I can offer some solace, for while Twelfth Night and Epiphany may come and go, there is yet another old tradition that keeps Christmastime––the music, the stories, the festivity and lights––going all the way to the start of February. As Seth and I have grown older together, this has become the tradition that we follow, a custom that has strong ties to old Pagan traditions. The First of February brings Candlemas Eve. As celestial mechanics go, this is the night that winter begins to give way to spring, for we reach the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Yule gives way to Imbolc in the seasonal round of the year. And by Candlemas Eve, the 17th century poet Robert Herrick tells us, all traces of Christmas greenery must be removed from the home (…how many leaves there be / Neglected, there (maids, trust to me) / So many goblins you shall see).

As people more interested in wholeness and balance, these are the ways we follow, fully realizing they are not for everyone. Mind you, a lot of our Christmas decorations will be down before Candlemas Eve. Robert Herrick did not have modern Christmas decorations to contend with; just greenery from the natural world. And by Candlemas Eve here, we are most likely down to just things from nature, too. That night, we will return to nature what is hers.

As for the legend of la Befana… I will save that story for Epiphany, tomorrow, when you will finally have enough of me and all this Yuletide stuff. If I could, I’d have my cousin Marietta tell the story, while my cousin Cammie dramatizes the part. Instead, you’ll just get me, doing the best I can.

 

Quiet Time, & Preparation

TENTH DAY of CHRISTMAS
St. Titus’s and St. Gregory’s Day, Handsel Monday

With no particular customs associated with this, the Tenth Day of Christmas, I always take it as good day to prepare for the celebrations to come in the next couple of days: Twelfth Night and Epiphany. To that end, I’m going to include today the recipe I give you most years on the blog ahead of Epiphany: our recipe for Three Kings Cakes, steeped in the ancient flavors of that old desert land where the Christmas story first unfolded.

As for today, this Tenth Day of Christmas brings the Feast Day of St. Titus and St. Gregory, and it’s also St. Rigobert’s Day and St. Ramon’s Day. Titus was a disciple of St. Paul in the first century, and Gregory was a bishop in the sixth century. Rigobert had a trying time of it as an early Archbishop of Reims––political matters mostly––and he is held up as a model of patience. He kept a goose as a pet; that would take some patience, too. Ramon is particularly difficult to know; he was a bishop and he appears in the Chambers Bros. Book of Days on January 4 for the year 1869, but I have found no mention of him since in more contemporary sources.

Those same Chambers Bros. resided in Edinburgh, and in Scotland in ages past this First Monday after New Year was known as Handsel Monday, a day not so unlike Boxing Day in England. Servants and workers were given a hearty meal and a gift in hand (that’s the handsel), as well as the day off from all labor. It was the traditional day to bestow presents upon the mail carrier and the newspaper boy. In more rural areas the day was often kept at its Old Style date, celebrated on the Monday after the 12th of January and called Auld Hansel Monday (like our New Year’s song Auld Lang Syne). If there are readers in Scotland (Carolyn, I’m talking to you!), I’d be curious to know if any celebration of Handsel Monday continues today.

So, take today as a day of quiet, or, if you still have it in you to celebrate another grand event or two (I told you at the start that the Twelve Days of Christmas are extraordinary days that reside outside ordinary time) then let’s start preparing, for tomorrow evening brings Twelfth Night and the next day, Epiphany. In this house, we sometimes mark these closing days of the Yuletide season quietly, and sometimes with a big meal and a gathering of family and friends. This year, obviously, it will be quiet. With Twelfth Night and Epiphany, our focus shifts outward––toward the Magi who traveled to see the child and outer yet, to the star they followed on their journey. Stars make us think of larger things: far distances, light, the galaxy and the universe beyond. Christmas itself is close to the heart, but with Epiphany, the heart expands, as the universe, too.

Here at home, we bring out the illuminated paper star lanterns come Twelfth Night and we make Christmas sweets that, no matter how much we try to make earlier, we never seem to get made until the last few days of Christmas. Maybe it is a subconscious decision, for these baked goods feel older, more influenced by ancient flavors, flavors old and familiar to the Magi: Baklava flavored with honey and walnuts, and our friend Paula’s Kourambiedes cookies, each studded with a clove, and our Three Kings Cakes, flavored with honey, rose water, currants, and dates––flavors of the desert, of our ancient past, of that very first Christmas. The cakes are contemporary riffs on old flavors, but the Baklava and the Kourambiedes have a much longer history, the stuff of time immemorial. It’s easy to imagine that our friend St. Macarius, the fourth century confectioner that we celebrated on the Second Day of Christmas, was making these very same things in his shop in Old Alexandria.

So, while there are no particular customs for this Tenth Day of Christmas, mine has become the making of these delicious Three Kings Cakes, so they are ready for Twelfth Night and Epiphany, and perhaps this is the best custom of the day. The recipe yields three cakes, cakes you will prepare in three loaf pans. 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. Rose water is the main flavoring, mysterious and familiar all the same. 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, and if you don’t mind coming by for a pick up at our front porch here in Lake Worth Beach, use discount code PICKUP when you check out at our website; the code will deduct the $8.50 shipping charge. I’ll also be happy to make a free bicycle delivery to you if you live in our 33460 zip code––be sure to include your phone number when you order so we can arrange a pick up or delivery time.

This recipe began with Jeff Smith, who loved Christmas, but I’ve altered it over the years and this year, I updated it a bit more: I’ve cut down a bit on the currants, but added in some chopped dates. Again, more of the flavors of that desert land. Yule love these cakes! (Sorry, I get a big kick out of that. You can rest easy now that that’s probably the last time I’ll get to use yule that way this Christmastime.)

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T H R E E   K I N G S   C A K E S
makes three cakes

For the Batter
1 cup butter
generous 3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2  cups currants
1 cup chopped dates (pits removed, of course)
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 Three Magi,” an illustration from the reproductions of Herrad of Landsberg’s Hortus Deliciarum by Christian Moritz Engelhardt, 1818. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. The original book, known in English as The Garden of Delights, was made by Herrad of Landsberg, a 12th century nun and abbess of Hohenburg Abbey. The original perished in the burning of the Library of Strasbourg in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, but luckily we do have Engelhardt’s 19th century reproductions.

 

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Joyeux Noël

NINTH DAY of CHRISTMAS
St. Genevieve’s Day

Francophiles will find it très bien to learn that today is St. Genevieve’s Day. Genevieve, sacred to Paris, that fair city’s patron saint, lived in Paris in the fifth century as a nun and is credited with saving the city from an attack by Attila and his Huns in 451. This she did through fasting and prayer, encouraging the residents of the city to join her. And around 475, she founded Saint-Denys de la Chapelle in Paris, which stands today as part of the Basilica of St. Denis.

I knew a Genevieve when I was a boy. She was an old friend of the family––a neighbor of my grandparents in the old neighborhood––and she was feisty and independent and she often wore a bandana on her head. Even in her old age, when I knew her, she would go up on the roof of her house in Fort Lauderdale and fix things that needed fixing. I like people like this. St. Genevieve strikes me as feisty and independent, too, and certainly someone who was not afraid to fix things that needed fixing, whether it be a leaky roof or dealing with invading Huns or getting a church built.

As the patron saint of the City of Light, I like to think of Genevieve as another of the midwinter saints who are light bearers at this dark time of year and who encourage us to be light bearers, too. She is often depicted holding a candle. As the story goes: the devil would time and again blow out her candle as she went to pray at night. Genevieve, however, relit her candle without need of flint or fire, always overcoming the darkness. (I picture her rolling her eyes each time, too.) As our wheel of the year goes, we are now thirteen days beyond the Midwinter Solstice; already light is increasing as we begin the journey toward summer’s warmth once more in the Northern Hemisphere. The light of St. Genevieve promises to never be snuffed by the darkness.

And while there are no particular customs (that I am aware of, anyway) associated with this Ninth Day of Christmas, there are plenty of you out there who love the food and culture of France. I think today, this Ninth Day of Christmas, is a fine day to enjoy those things fully. Joyeux Noël et bonne année!

 

Seth and I saw the house in the photo on a walk through our Lake Worth neighborhood on New Year’s Eve. I took the four letters for what they are (Leon), but Seth is convinced the folks inside were trying to spell Noel. Either way, it seemed a fitting image to use. Joyeux Noël from us, and from Leon.

 

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