La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana
viva viva la Befana!
The Befana comes at night
In worn out shoes
Dressed like a Roman
Long live the Befana!
~ Traditional Italian nursery rhyme
In this time of Earth, we nurture ourselves in practical, grounded ways. This is the time to turn inward, gather round our hearth fires, and be cozy at home. After all the bustle of the holidays, we gather into our hearts the quiet of winter’s peace.
And with the waning Moon’s energy, this is a wonderful time to clear, cleanse the energy, and prepare for the next New Moon, bringing a fresh start to our magical new year ahead.
If you haven’t already done so, you might begin by putting away your holiday decorations, and saving the leavings of your Yule log (which will be used to ritually kindle your fire when Yule comes again this year).
Many Christians call this celebration Twelfth Night. It marks the end of the Yule festivities, which date back to old Teutonic Pagan traditions honoring the Mother Goddess. In the Western Christian Church, it is called Epiphany, traditionally celebrated as the time the three Wise Men or Magi arrived to present their gifts to the baby Jesus.
Folklore says that the time between Christmas and Epiphany is a witching time. Magical, enchanted things can happen, as it is a doorway between the worlds. For instance, on the Lake of Lucerne at Brunnen, two female wood spirits, Strudeli and Stratteli appear on Twelfth Night according to Swiss Lore.
And in the Faroe Islands, this day features prominently in legends about the selkies, which are, as my regular visitors know from my lengthy discussion about them in early December, seals that take human form, especially as women, in order to love human males or gain revenge for human crimes against seal families. This is a day on which it is especially common for selkies to appear as humans.
And apple trees are Wassailed today. In England, wassailing is a name given to various practices of drinking and offering libations. In essence, they consist of wishing health to crops and animals while wishing good fortune to the people happily passing the wassail bowl to one another!
Many of these practices continued well into modern times, although they probably descended from much older Pagan practices. The most widespread, famous, and enduring concerned fruit trees. Historian Robert Herrick, almost certainly writing about Devon, England in the 1630s, spoke of ‘wassailing’ the fruit-bearing trees in order to assure good yields, and in the 1660s and 1670s, a Sussex clergyman gave money to boys who came to ‘howl’ his orchard (being the enduring local term).
John Aubrey, describing West Country customs in the same period, said that on Twelfth Eve men ‘go with their wassel-bowl into the orchard and go about the trees to bless them, and put a piece of toast upon the roots…’
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
~ From the South Hams of Devon, 1871
As Michael Pollan notes in his fascinating work, The Botany of Desire, until the 20th century, by and large, apple fruit was not cultivated for eating, but for drinking! Thus, the enthusiastic and revelrous rites of wassailing were a delightful combination of enjoying the fruits while ensuring plenty more in the year ahead!
Last but certainly not least, in Italy tonight, La Befana rides her broom and brings gifts on this final night of Yule. Families leave food and wine for her by the fireplace and children hang their shoes and stockings by the chimney for her to fill with toys and sweets.
Traditionally, all Italian children may also expect to find a lump of “coal” in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring). This is because La Befana knows that every child has been naughty, at least once or maybe twice, during the preceding year.
Her origins can be traced to the Goddesses associated with death and abundance, whose roles are so important at this time of year. She is sometimes portrayed as a bogeyman or associated with Hecate, Queen of the Night. She also represents the old year, like the Cailleach of Celtic tradition, the old hag who gives way to (or transforms Herself into) the young Maiden of the Spring.
So if you haven’t yet, tonight is the time to sweep up the pine needles and tuck away the ornaments. While you’re at it, you would be wise to also give a libation or two to the Beloveds of your land, your home, and your family!