We arrived on the island of Sicily on January 6th. Epiphany is a national holiday in Italy and everything is closed. After making our way to a small mountain village called Petralia Soprana, we checked into our bed and breakfast only to learn that the only restaurant in the village was closed for the week. Having been on the road for over four months now, our boys said, “Well there must be a reason. Let’s go explore!”
We were drawn to the arresting hill town of Gangi. The village caressed the hillside and illuminated the night sky beckoning weary travelers to attempt the ascent into the main piazza. There was a gentle mist that became fierce as we parked the car and climbed into the pedestrian-only village square. We heard laughing and singing and it motivated us to keep climbing. We were recompensed with the festival of La Befana.
Italian kids look forward to the arrival of Babbo Natale on Christmas Eve. Santa Claus, however, is a modern tradition that pales in comparison to the anticipation generated by the arrival of an old witch in early January. La Befana comes from Christian legend rather than popular culture. The story states that the Three Wise Men asked the lonely witch to lead them to the stable where the baby Jesus lay in a manger. La Befana declined their offer. Very soon she realized that she had made a huge mistake. She quickly gathered up a bag full of gifts and set off alone in search of the baby Jesus. Though she followed the same star as the Magi, she never found the stable. Tenacious as she is, La Befana continues to travel the world over to this day searching every house for baby Jesus. She leaves treats and small toys for the nice and candy coal for the naughty.
As we stood in this ancient town of Gangi, Sicily and listened to the village kids sing the La Befana song, we were overwhelmed with gratitude for the freedom to learn by doing. The kids quenched their hunger by scrambling with the local children to find candy La Befana pitched from the zip line above.
As we crowded into cafes for molten cups of chocolate after the celebration, we felt strangely connected even though nothing was familiar. We celebrated Epiphany in every sense of the word …