The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola

Title: The Legend of Old Befana
Author: Tomie dePaola
Publisher: Sandpiper
Released: 1980
Source: my personal library


This is a delightful reading of the favorite Italian Christmas story about an eccentric old woman and her never-ending search for the Baby King.

With Epiphany coming up on January 6, we’ve already read The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola several times in our home. In Italian folklore, La Befana is an old woman (in some regions, a friendly “witch”) who visits children on the night before Epiphany, leaving candy and/or small gifts. Befana represents all people who are seeking Jesus.

The stories about La Befana vary greatly from region to region, but Tomie dePaola’s version comes closest to the one I learned as a child.

La Befana is a poor, old woman who is a bit of a hermit and always, always sweeping her house. As the Three Kings make their way to Bethlehem, they pass through her village. She is invited to join them, to make the journey to see the Christ Child, but she refuses. She is too busy; she needs to sweep. She soon regrets her decision and changes her mind. She stays up all night baking. She gathers these homemade cookies and cakes as gifts, and brings along her broom so she can sweep for the new mother. However, she learns she is too late; the Kings’ procession has already moved on. She tried her best to catch up, but never did. It is said that even today, she is still searching for the baby Jesus. Each Epiphany Eve she sets off on her journey, leaving gifts to all children along her way, in the hopes that one of them will be the Christ Child.

My 3-year-old is enthralled with dePaola’s book, as am I. The illustrations are soft on the eyes, but full of color and interest. The text is easy to understand without being dumbed down. The story is worded beautifully, making it just as wonderful a experience for the adult reading the story aloud as it is for the child listening. One can practically hear the procession of the Three Kings approaching her town, the bells tinkling through a light wind. Readers are quickly pulled in to Befana’s world; her tendency to be a bit misanthropic and always too busy to put her household duties aside (can’t many of us relate?); her realization that she’d made a poor decision; her regret; her determination and perseverance when she changes her mind; her kindness while preparing gifts for the baby; her thoughtfulness in remembering the needs of a new mother.

This is a lovely story, albeit somewhat bittersweet, filled with hope and symbolism. There aren’t many English-language books telling Befana’s story, but thankfully, dePaola’s The Legend of Old Befana is a treasure.

For a Special Treat: Try this recipe for traditional Epiphany cookies, befanini (La Befana’s Stars). The knowledgeable ladies on NoiMamme tell me rum is actually more traditional than anisette, so feel free to use whichever flavor you prefer!

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