Ever since I was old enough to comprehend that New Year’s Eve represented the end of one year and the beginning of the next a holiday requiring NOISE, drunkenness, and joyful (?) merry making, I experienced a profound sense of alienation. This celebration seemed hollow and meaningless to me. As an adolescent even though I went on dates the night depressed me. As an adult I endured ignoring the whole thing.
Once I surrendered Christianity to the fire and began creating my own rituals based on the Celtic calendar I began to think of the Winter Solstice as the Turning of the Wheel into the new year, although powerful dreams that forecast the future usually came around Epiphany, the last day of the Christian/pre Christian twelve days of Christmas celebration. This celebration had roots in the deep past. This peculiar dream habit of mine baffled me and I resisted it because of its Christian overlay until this year when I finally surrendered to what my dreams had been reflecting all along. Epiphany was a day to glimpse the future. My new year begins on the night of January 6th, a day of Awakening. Apparently my dream life believes that an ancient script needs to play out with or without my cooperation.
After the Feast of the Dead ends in early November I incorporate liminal space into my rituals. I used to believe that this liminal space ended at the winter solstice but as the years wore on I developed a sense that a Festival of Fire turned the solar wheel but did NOT bring in the new year. Contrary to popular goddess and pagan culture it also did not bring in the light. (The Festival of Light occurs around February 2nd).
Instead, this (usually raucous) solar turning seemed to carry shadow elements.
In the past few years including last winter, I had projections placed on me that created deep personal distress until I recognized what had happened. Only then was I able to separate myself from them. In retrospect I am grateful for these experiences for they helped me root out what this solstice celebration often hid. Shadows in the night.
This year the days leading up to the solstice felt different. I was seeing partridge scurrying over the snow around my house almost every day. I recalled a song I loved as a child had a “partridge in a pear tree”. Intrigued, I did a little research and discovered to my surprise that the Twelve days of Christmas – December 25 thru January 6 – were sometimes perceived to occur in liminal space with the new year (cyclic not linear) coming in at the end of this celebration. Ah, I thought, so all our current new year’s hoopala might be attached to liminal space. First the Festival of Fire, then New Year’s Eve, two opportunities to act out more shadow elements before the new year began. This idea felt just right to me.
(partridge love partridge berries and I keep some in the house over the winter – note the partridgeberries are sprouting new plants in January!)
On January 5th I had a dream image of a partridge in a pear tree. In the morning I decided to burn my balsam wreaths in the woodstove rather than to wait until First Light in February, which had been my custom for years. I also did something that seemed very odd to me at the time. I swept each room of the house instead of vacuuming wondering why I felt compelled to sweep. It seemed ridiculous.
Two amazing visits completed the day. The first birds that arrived were 25 wild turkeys that hung around the house for over an hour. I had never had so many. I had a tendency to think of these birds as birds of sacrifice; they were sacred to Indigenous peoples for this reason, but on this day I heard the word clearly: Abundance! Ah ha. These birds signified both aspects of one whole, sacrifice and abundance. At dusk I had another surprise. One of my beloved partridge’s arrived, this one was a big one, and s/he hopped into a fruit tree right outside my window where I was able to watch the bird swallowing spring buds and twigs. A Partridge in my Pear Tree, just like the song about the Twelve Days of Christmas! I was thrilled.
January 6th dawned quietly. All the excitement had occurred the day before. It was icy and cold so I stayed in perusing FB at lunch as I occasionally do. Imagine my shock when I read about the Good Witch of Epiphany – La Befana and the Cycles of Time. How had I missed it? I had Italian roots and never had heard of this old hag, perhaps because up until recently I had been separated from these roots?
Anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco trace Befana’s origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices. In Italy this old woman had been part of Italian folklore since the 800’s. She was later associated with the Roman Goddess Strenia who presided over the New Year, a goddess of purification who offered physical, spiritual and emotional good health to all people and was a protector of mothers and children. She also had a strong link with Juno and another with a more ancient Etruscan Mother Goddess who presided over forests, fertility, abundance, and the Cycles of the Year. She also had a powerful relationship with the Ancestors who were honored on the last day of this festival, January 6th.
The story goes that Befana was a poverty stricken old woman who lived alone in a ram shackle old house (I see elements of Baba Yaga in her). She was a meticulous housekeeper that swept her house every day with her wooden broom. She was also an excellent cook, and she loved to bake cookies and make candies!
There are different versions of the part of the tale that follows. In one (probably the most popular) the Magi come and invite her to bring gifts for the Christ child after she feeds and gives them a place to stay for the night. Befana says she’s too busy but later changes her mind, gathers dates, figs, honey, cookies and other goodies and flies around on her broomstick (symbol of the tree) searching for the Magi on the night of January 5th the Eve of Epiphany. She gets lost and decides she will leave gifts for all children everywhere because she was not sure where the holy child was. She slipped through a keyhole, came down a chimney or entered a home in some other magical way!
Italian children leave her stockings to fill with goodies. Befana always sweeps the floor of the homes she visits after she fills stockings so that the New Year can begin, but this sweeping is not linear in intent. Rather, Befana acknowledges the cycles of time that nature orchestrates as seasons of the year. Each end becomes a new beginning. In some versions it is said that one can see her just after at midnight on the Eve of Epiphany. In Italy she is revered and beloved by the children who are more excited by her coming than any other Christmas celebration.
Today this powerful Goddess who presides over the cycles of the seasons and time is a benevolent crone who truly could not be more beloved in her native land. The place in Italy where she is believed to have had her home is Urbania, and every year, there is a festival in her honor. In recent years there has been as many as 50,000 people there for the week of January 5 and 6th.
I am captivated by the fact that before I read this story I began to act as if La Befana was guiding me. I burned my wreaths, put way my lights, and swept all my floors just like she might have! I too was bringing in the new year in a way that was finally meaningful to me.
What I love best about this legend is its obvious antiquity, as well as La Befan’s benevolence as an old crone. I also am delighted to discover that a goddess helps to bring in the new year. We have so many terrible tales of the old woman that as soon as I heard the story I wanted to tell it. Long live our “old women” and wise old crones!
BIO: Sara is a naturalist, ethologist (a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.