To begin this story, it will be necessary to tell you something about a person not many people will know about, unless they come from Italy.
La Befana. La Befana is said by some to be a faery, by others a witch, nowadays she might be properly titled a goddess. La Befana. She appears for the week of the Annunciation, the days after the New Year. On these days she visits children all around Italy, bringing gifts and sweet treats. Kids petition her by tying little notes to the trees in the town square. All the children await the arrival of La Befana, the old, old lady in the tattered peasant clothing and the benevolent smile.
One can’t but notice the similarity, in function if not in form, to a more familiar character, popularly know as Santa Claus. Around the same time of year they appear, giving gifts to children, and kids write letters to both of them.
It should not be such a surprise that the two of them have met.
This is the story of that historic meeting, between a man named Nicholas, and the mysterious La Befana.
Back in those days, what we refer to as the Renaissance, Nicholas was not a Saint, not an elf, not even close to the wizard who can bend time and space that we know now. He was a normal human being, though maybe a bit better cut than the average. You might call him one of the early philanthropist benefactors. A wealthy man from a respectable merchant family, Nicholas took a great interest in the welfare of children. That might not seem so strange to us in these days of charities and foundations, but back in Nicholas’ time, it was pretty much accepted that if you were poor, your children were poor, and that was the luck of life. Nicholas, for whatever gift of grace or soft-heartedness, cared for children who were not members of his own family, and he helped many otherwise bereft children and their families escape lives of misery and poverty. It is easy to understand how he would come to admire the legendary La Befana, then, and eventually he sought her audience.
It was easier said than done. As an adult, your chances of seeing La Befana were next to nil. Even most children who believed in La Befana with the most fervent faith could expect to never catch a glimpse of the famous faery witch, no matter how many of her sweets and treats you had eaten. For years, Nicholas would travel around, following the trail of cookies, oranges, dolls, and toy horses during her season of benevolence. Eventually he thought of enlisting himself in her service, and so one year he took a great sack of gifts, and began handing them out along the way of his search. Of course, being visible, human, and obvious as a sore thumb, he caused a great commotion, and in one village he was absolutely mobbed by children, until his sack was empty, and in exhaustion Nicholas started on his way home.
On the road home, a sudden wind pitched up a fierce little dust devil right in front of Nicholas, and he squinted his eyes and breathed through his sleeve as he waited for it to pass. The flurry abated, the sun caught his eyes, and when he recovered from his momentary blindness, there she was. La Befana, stepping off her broom!
Nicholas fell to his knees. Here was the woman he had seeking these last three years, and immediately, in spite of her apparent age, he fell utterly, completely in love with her. “My Lady!” he managed to stammer.
“You’re operating in my turf!” she hissed at him, and as he looked into her eyes, flashing with threat and anger, for a split second Nicholas saw her as another person, regal, barely middle aged, and dressed splendidly in a way from antiquity. Then the vision passed and she reappeared as a bent old peasant woman in rags. At that moment Nicholas knew there was much more to La Befana than the legends told.
“My Lady,” he managed to repeat, “I just saw you as a younger…”
“Well that matters for nothing, and what is at hand is that you are usurping my territory. Italy is mine, and treating the children at this time of year is my duty. Did I seem to you to fail in my obligation, that you must so ungraciously mock my station?”
“Oh, Lady, do not think…I never meant…You see I meant to…” sputtered Nicholas.
“Take your time,” said La Befana, crossing her arms in front of her. “I have plenty of it. A whole ten hours to complete Florence, Venice, Tuscany, Naples, and the villages in between. Should be no trouble,” she said, and again, through the flash in her eye, Nicholas caught a glimpse of the younger noblewoman. Clearly, in some way she was enjoying herself, and he relaxed a bit.
“Oh dear, forgive me, My La…La Befana, if I may. I have been seeking you for many years. If you would, I would become your student, your disciple, your…well, never mind. I, like yourself, am dedicated to the welfare of the children. Whether poor or well born, the children are no better nor worse one from the other, and all possess the creative divine potential of the best of the human race, and it is this potential I seek to nourish. I by the grace of God command a respectful family fortune, and I thought that working together we…”
“We could exhaust your fortune in short work; such is the need of poor children in this country and beyond. What we need to do is….wait a minute! I just realized I said ‘we’!”
“Please feel free to do so, La Befana,” whispered Nicholas. “I will be your servant, if you will be my Lady.”
“I see,” said La Befana, and turned her back to him, to consider the matter.
After a moment she turned back to him. “What we are really trafficking in here, the real gift being given to these children, is Hope. Do you understand? I give these small gifts, but really what I give them is something to hope for. This makes the most profound change in what a child can or can not do, and gradually this can change the country, the people as a whole. This has been my work these last few centuries…”
“Last few centuries?” asked Nicholas. “But what of the story that the Three Wise Men invited you to join them in their search for the Christ Child? You were too busy cleaning house to go along on the adventure, but according to the tale, you thought differently of it and tried to find them, and that is why you travel giving gifts to the children.”
“Oh, ha!” laughed La Befana. “That is a great story, one of my favorites really, but I am not as old as Our Savior. I was only made…I only received my duty as a human in the feudal days of the Middle Ages. But what I was getting around to, a challenge I would give you as my student, and as my suitor if I read your intention would be this: I alone will continue to bring gifts and hope to the children of Italy, as my charge commands me to do, and you, as my consort, will do the same in the same time – for all the rest of the children of the world!”
Nicholas gaped. “My Lady. Do not mistake my admiration, devotion nor love. But I am a mortal man, human. You are…well, you must be something else. To do what you ask, I would have to be a saint, or a god!”
“Yes, you would,” said La Befana, thoughtfully.
“Is such a thing possible?” said Nicholas. “Surely as Christians we can not speak of such things.”
“I am a Christian. Roman Catholic.” said La Befana, perhaps a bit defensively. “Among other things.”
Nicholas crossed himself reflexively “Lady, you are a goddess, that is clear. You are a witch, or so they say. You are a faery, friend of La Bensozia, everyone knows that. But you said you were once human. How does one become a god, having been mortal once?
La Befana approached him, and assumed her tall, noble form. Without warning she grasped his shoulders and leaned to look into his eyes. Nicholas has no choice but to surrender to her gaze, which seemed to probe his soul from the inside out. After what seemed a very long time, she released him and turned back as the stooped old woman.
“Very well. Nicholas, you are a rare human. So I will tell you this.”
“There are two ways to become a god. You must be born of a god or goddess, like so many sons and daughters of Zeus, or you must be made a god by another god or goddess.”
“So then, you yourself can make me what I must be, to meet your challenge and merit your troth!” exulted Nicholas.
“Nicholas, I am afraid not. My charge as a minor deity is fairly limited. I can do this thing for the children, and my powers are limited to Italy.”
“Well, who made you goddess, and why?”
“Aradia, daughter of Diana of the moon. She admired my work, back in my mortal days. I, like many of the feudal gentry, had mastered the arts of witchcraft. Unlike them, I made my gifts and wealth available to the peasantry. My husband would have hung me himself if he knew I was aiding his serfs. So I used my arts of illusion to make myself as one of them. This is my disguise I use to this day.”
“Aradia was a bit of a rebel, even by her mother’s standards. She would suffer no hypocrisy or sadism, and my husband and most of his lot stank of both. She made me a goddess, and charged me with bringing material comfort and hope to her people, ALL of her people.”
“And, may I ask, My Lady, your husband…”
Aradia was no fluffy bunny. She poisoned him. There is no more to his story. Ahem.”
Now Nicholas was the silent one. He sat down on the side of the road. After a spell, he continued.
“If not you, La Befana, who then will make me the immortal you require me to be?”
“Yes, there is our situation,” she agreed. “Since the classical times with Zeus filling up the world with gods of every minor description, the Immortal Ones are extremely reluctant to make any more gods on this earth. My advice, my best suggestion, should you take this challenge, is to go north, to the snowbound lands of the gods of the Asatru. There is one very lovely goddess who might be the softess touch of the Immortals. Yes, you must seek Freya.”
In his mind, Nicholas saw the snow, the pine trees laden with white brilliance, and the lady that La Befana spoke of, trailing waves of reddish blond hair, riding a sleigh drawn by cats, beautiful beyond compare, seductive, laughing. “I see,” he said. “I will be off directly. But let me be clear to you, La Befana, it is your hand I seek, not hers. You alone are my partner; you and I will bring hope to the children of the world.”
La Befana smiled, closed her eyes, and in a gust of wind, was gone.
Nicholas spent the rest of the winter, spring and summer tending to his estates, hiring and training managers, and by the fall he began on his pilgrimage to meet Freya.
As Nicholas traveled north, the weather became perceptibly colder. As he climbed into Switzerland he was treated to his first sight of snowy landscape. The brilliance of the falling snow, the softness of the draped trees, it all seemed so serene to him, and he began to feel like he was coming home instead of going out on a harrowing quest.
At each hamlet he simply asked for directions to go see Freya. Now, people pointed north, and fewer and fewer looked at him oddly. As he approached what is now called Germany, the snowy landscape drew him forward. He found himself loving snow, the brilliant blue sky, the powdery quiet of the air.
But with just a few more paces the sky disagreed with Nicholas serene mood. Clouds assembled, darkened and loomed threateningly, and a thunderbolt of lightning struck out towards Nicholas. He ran for the shelter of a large fir tree and another bolt cleaved it in half. Darting for a boulder, another flash annihilated it before Nicholas got close. A huge swelling in the thundercloud boiled down towards Nicholas and he was forced to his knees to pray for mercy. “Oh God, save me from this storm,” he shouted, and the winds howled in rage as response. Thinking more to his recent experience with La Befana, he shouted, “May the gods preserve me! I seek audience with Freya, and I come with a pure heart!”
The downward-moving ball of thundercloud moved towards his voice, and when it touched the ground with a deafening boom of thunderclap, Nicholas found himself kneeling before a huge personage dressed in skins, with a massive double-headed hammer, and two horns rearing from a pointed helmet. His long moustache was braided into his longer red beard, and his breath smelled like strong ale. “Who are you, who seeks Her so brashly?”
“Sir,” said Nicholas, standing up from his knees. “I have no reason to hide my search. I seek Freya on a mission from La Befana.”
“Who?” said the warrior, tilting his head doubtfully.
“Oh, uh. La Befana, herself a servant of Aradia, which would make me, uh, her…”
“Aradia,” said the giant, stroking his beard.
Yes, you’ve got it. Aradia, daughter of Diana?” said Nicholas hopefully.
“Diana, aww, of course, why didn’t ya just say so? Har!” said the man, clapping Nicholas on the shoulder. Of course, ya know me, Thor, right?”
“Oh, couldn’t mistake Thor for anybody else,” said Nicholas rubbing his shoulder. “But if you please, Thor, time is of the essence here. I’ve been traveling for nearly two months now, and I must take care of this errand with Freya on behalf of La…oh, Diana. Sir.”
“No doubt, yes, you should be off. Look, you should find her somewhere between here and Valhalla,” said Thor, gesturing with his huge hammer. “On further north, follow the signposts is what I do.”
“Thanks Thor, and, if there’s anything you can do about the weather, uh, it’s really dark under this cloud.”
“Ya, no problem, how about this?” Thor lifted a powerful fist, opened his hand, and the clouds twirled down into his palm, leaving a clear blue sky. “Safe travel for the Son of Diana!”
“It is most appreciated Thor, may you have a peaceful time with your rounds! Ho ho! Off I go!” And off marched Nicholas into a bright snowy, northbound road.
“Hallooo, friend,” said Nicholas to a small, dark man at a fork in the road. He had been walking for several hours and though the bright day, blessed by Thor, was long, there was still a short nighttime this far north. As he approached, he had a difficult time focusing on the shadowy man, who was leaning up against the signpost.
“Hi there, sir, what does this signpost say is the road to Valhalla?” asked Nicholas.
“We-e-e-ll,” said the shadow man, turning to look at the signpost he had been leaning on. Then, with some drama, he feigned tripping over a small stone, and fell into the signpost, causing it to go spinning around. When the signpost stopped spinning, he stood up slowly, and stepped back. “Well, there you go,” he said. “That is the road to Valhalla.”
Nicholas followed the arrow of the sign toward the road it pointed to. He frowned. “No, that couldn’t be right. That is the road I just got here on.” Nicholas pointed. “See, there are my boot prints approaching this junction in the road.”
“Oh, yes, well let me fix this sign, then,” said the little man. He grabbed the signpost and swiveled it around so that the Valhalla arrow pointed toward on of the other two roads. “There you have it unmistakable, Valhalla is that way. Good day.” And he started off himself on the other road.
Nicholas looked at the man walking down the road. He looked back to the road he had just come from. Then, sighing, he pushed off down the path now indicated by the sign. “At least,” he said to himself, “I won’t have to meet that shifty little man down this road.”
Nicholas trudged on through the short northern night, still marveling at the snow which seemed to glow from within. Luminescent clouds danced in eerie, erratic patterns which hypnotized the traveler. He had never seen the Northern Lights before, and in his walking dream, they came from reflections cast by Freya’s jewelry.
As morning dawned just a few hours later, Nicholas saw another fork in the road ahead. As he approached the signpost, blinking in the morning sun, he was startled by a shadow.
“What? What are you doing here? You went down the other road!” protested Nicholas, for the shadow resolved into the same dark little man he had met before.
“You really should pay better attention, when you’re out traveling at night,” said the man, pointing at the sign. “You’ll get nowhere like this.” He snickered and lit up a long reed pipe.
Sure enough, Nicholas looked at the signpost and it was identical to the first. “You cruel prankster,” he growled. “I will not be thwarted by your tricks, for I am on a true mission to seek the Lady Freya!”
“Lady Freya!” he shouted towards the last of the glimmering Aurora Borealis. “FREYA! LADY FREY-YAAA!”
Suddenly, Nicholas heard the ringing of bells, and a sleigh flashed into the crossroads. Drawn by two giant cats, ornamented with gilt gold, sparkling with pearl-embroidered reigns, the lady in his vision stood up in the sleigh. Her red-gold hair trailed behind the carriage, glinting as brightly as her copious jewelry. She stepped from the carriage and embraced the dark little man.
“Loki! So good to see you!” she cheered, her voice musical and ringing. “You have led our pilgrim to me, how can I thank you for your true service?”
“Oh, the ways are many, Lady,” said Loki, leering.
“And you must be Nicholas, how good to meet you! Do sit down and tell me your story!”
Nicholas turned around, and a plump pair of sofas had appeared, with a little table between them bearing three steaming mugs of hot mulled mead. Gratefully, he sat down and drank, trying not to notice Loki sitting next to him on the sofa.
Nicholas told Freya his whole story, while she smiled and nodded companionably. Her beautiful blue eyes glinted with brimming tears, as Nicholas described his love for La Befana, and his desire to bring hope to children around the world. When he was finished telling his tale, he fell silent, and a profound peace settled around them.
Freya stood up, and beckoned Nicholas toward her. He stepped forward, and she caught him up in a tender embrace. Leaning down to his face, for she was very tall indeed, she closed her eyes and kissed him gently and sweetly. A course of electricity warmer and more intoxicating than the mead spread through him, and each cell in his body vibrated, tickled, itched and seemed to ring like millions of bells. That is the only way he could describe it, being kissed in this special way by the goddess Freya.
When she stepped back from him, she steadied him with her hands. “It is done, Nicholas. So it shall be. How do you feel?”
Nicholas patted down his body, which seemed no different on the outside. But everything inside was changed. He felt golden, like he was made of pure light. “I feel divine,” he said.
Freya leaned back and laughed. “You ARE divine now, Nicholas, welcome to the company of the Immortal Ones!”
“But wait!” she exclaimed. “Your drab travelers clothing do not suit your divinity. We need something as fine as the god you have become!” She clapped her hands softly and rapidly, and hundreds of mice came racing towards them from the forest. They climbed all over Nicholas, weaving and spinning as they went, and when they retreated, he was covered with red velvet, green wool, shiny black leather, fur trim, and his moustache has been combed, waxed to impossible lengths and gently perfumed.
“Ho Ho!” he laughed, and now his voiced boomed deeper than it ever had before. “This is fine treatment!”
“It is just as fine as your calling to bring hope to the children of the world. I have brought you this much closer to your goal. But the other powers you will need, to make your errand possible, are beyond my ability to give, Nicholas.” She shook her head, but no sadness marred her expression.
“You need not just immortality and the ordinary gifts of the Divine Ones, but the ability to command time and space. For that we seek a higher power.”
“What, Lady, or should I ask Whom, is this higher power?”
“To learn the arts of Time, you must go to see Odin, who learned them by sacrificing himself on none other than the World Tree. Here, you will need transport.” She whistled and sang several ringing notes, and a fine snow sleigh appeared, drawn by the finest reindeer you could imagine. “Loki would be happy to show you the way.”
Nicholas looked over to Loki, who had been sprawled out on the sofa stroking his goatee through the whole proceedings. He grinned at Nicholas.
“Um, Lady, if you will, I would love it if YOU would accompany me on the journey. Our visit has been so short, it would be a shame to part company before the mission is complete,” said Nicholas. “That is, if I am capable of completing it.”
“Well, I don’t see why not!” Freya laughed. “A merry visit it will be! Away we go!”
The little sofas disappeared, folding up into cushion in the carriages. Loki hopped into the back of Nicholas’ sleigh, to his distaste, but before he could complain, they were airborne, flying over the sparkling snow covered forest.
The short Northern night had fallen by the time they landed. The forest they found themselves in was darker, more ancient. “Odin?” Freya called softly. It occurred to Nicholas that she was a bit shy of the elder god.
The forest seemed to part, and draw them forward. The forest then opened, but it seemed even darker. Stars illuminated the trees and the travelers, shining more brightly than on any other place on earth.
And he was before them. Against the backdrop of a tree bigger than any he had ever seen, its upper branches seeming to be tipped with the stars, Odin hung upside down in mid-air. He held a huge book in front of him, deep in study he was, though one eye was closed, and the other, blind and milky white, stared into the book.
“Welcome, Freya, Loki, my friend. Who is the newly-divine traveler you bring to me?” he said, righting himself and closing the large leather book. His seeing eye opened and peered at Nicholas, making the young god squirm.
“I am Nicholas,” he said, and bowed.
“Tell me Nicholas, have you studied much of the great Mysteries?”
“What I know of the Mysteries, Odin, all I know is what I have studied from the Good Book, the Bible, but I know not if it is the same as yours.”
“The Bible?” mused Odin. It is the book of the Jews and Christians, followers of YWHW. Interesting to find any of your tribes at these latitudes.”
“Yes, Odin, I am Christian, or at least once I was. Now that I am evidently one with the Immortals, I don’t know if, um, I’m qualified anymore.”
“Interesting. You bring up a very profound question, a Divine riddle. Just for my amusement, no challenge or anything, what how would you answer this Divine Riddle? Nicholas, tell me, what IS the religion of the gods? In three words or less.”
Odin rotated back around to upside down, and he closed his seeing eye and the blind one wandered between the worlds. Nicholas knew very well that he was indeed being tested, and he could feel the gaze of the blind eye peering through his brain. What IS the religion of the gods?
Three words. Three gods stood around him, except, of course the one who was hanging upside down. Odin took out his great book again. Freya clasped and unclasped her hands. Loki coughed gently and lit his pipe.
Nicholas looked to Freya. Words bubbled up in his head. First: Beauty. Then: Love. Then the one he spoke aloud.
“Creation,” said Nicholas. Odin smiled cryptically with one side of his mouth, turned some pages and scribbled a note in the book.
Nicholas looked at Odin, hanging there before him, and again the words welled into his mind. Knowlege? No, but close. Wisdom? Too proud. Then, the word came.
“Seeking,” he said, pleased with himself. Odin’s blind eye blinked, and the other side of his mouth smiled. He checked off something else in his book.
Nicholas looked over to the shifting image of Loki. This one would be harder, he knew. Chaos, thought Nicholas, no. Pranks, he thought, and grinned to himself. How much of creation might be explained by the pranks of the gods? Odin sighed and shifted. What is it? Nicholas wracked his brain. Illusion? Deception? Mishap?
Nicholas stared at Loki, who shrugged and blew out a long puff of smoke. The shapes shifted, merged, becoming one picture then another. Nicholas could now smell the fine tobacco, and he understood.
“Change!” he crowed. “It’s so simple! That is what we do!”
Odin wrote a symbol in the book and slapped it closed. Righting himself again, he laughed jovially and said, “As good a description as any, Nicholas. Now, tell me, what is it that YOU do, as a divine Immortal? Specifically. And why my help is needed."
They all sat down on the little sofas again, and steaming mead appeared again. Between Nicholas and Freya, with a few tangential interjections from Loki, the story was told.
“I will grant you this power, Nicholas, for your calling is true and good. You will be able to bend the laws of time and space to deliver your gifts, and the Hope that they bring, in one night. But you will not be able to do this from your southern latitudes of Italy. In order for you to access the vortices of time space, you will need to relocate to the North Pole. The magnetic field of the Earth herself will allow you access to timelessness, that and Loki’s excellent chaos magick. You will be able to do this on one night, when the sun never sets and times stands still, the Winter Solstice or thereabouts.”
“And I will send you teams of elves and dwarves!” sang Freya. “The finest jewelers, craftspeople, toymakers, cobblers, they will love to serve your mission.”
Nicholas’ heart stopped. “The North Pole?” he stuttered. “I have come to love the snow, and eternal winter would suit me well. But…what if She will not come with me there? Italy will always be her home…”
“Nicholas. Why are you doing this? For the love of a woman, or to bring Hope? What is your will? And would she have you anyway, if romantic love was your only end?” frowned Odin.
Nicholas held a vision of La Befana in his mind. She morphed back and forth from her matron to her crone forms. No, thought Nicholas. He is right. If I were not willing to do this without her, she would never be willing to do it with me.
“Then let me go to the North Pole. The Winter Solstice is all but upon us,” said Nicholas. “So be it. Without her, I will be a lonely Father Christmas, but I will be myself in no other guise.”
And so it all unfolded. Nicholas built a great manufactory at the North Pole, and the dwarves and elves emigrated, all but a few, to aid him with their great skill and labor. And just a few days after the Winter Solstice, Nicholas was ready. The great sleigh was laden with gifts, and the reindeer stamped their hooves in anticipation of the adventure. He could almost see the magnetic fields of the North Pole spinning in a brilliant vortex, just outside the range of his color vision. Loki danced around madly and threw sparks and screamed words in a language Odin himself would not have remembered. And at the last second, he threw himself into the sleigh, and hid himself under the great sack of gifts.
“What are you doing, you coward?” hollered Nicholas. “This better work, you sneaky little prankster, you fraud, you, you, you, WHOA-OH-WO!”
For the sleigh had jerked into the sky, spinning the reindeer after it. They were rotating madly in the vortex. “What do I do? Loki, what do I do????”
“Reins,” came the muffled monosyllable, from beneath the packages. “Reins!”
Nicholas caught the reins in his hands and pulled the slack out of the lines. The reindeer then all queued up and leaned into a forward motion. The vortex of Time still spun around them, but now Nicholas was in control.
“HO HO HO!” his laugh bellowed out! “Merry Christmas!!!” And he shook the reins, just to hear the jingles.
The evening flew by like he never could have imagined. To us modern people it would be like watching a film in fast forward. But to Nicholas it seemed like a miracle, which of course it was. He left presents all around the world, and no-one knew where they came from, for of course this was the first night of Santa Claus’ ride on Christmas.
When they were done, Nicholas asked Loki, who was now confident enough of his art to ride shotgun, “How much time do we have left?”
“Time, that’s a funny question, Nick. We really have no time at all. We have to be back at the pole or, hmm.” Loki frowned.
“Look. One more stop, it won’t take long.”
Loki rolled his eyes. “You’re the captain, Nick.”
Nicholas pulled the reins and the sleigh spun downward. He landed on the roof of a little cottage in a sprawling countryside filled with grass. He hopped down to the ground. Loki put his fingers in his ears.
La Befana stepped out of her cottage and smiled.
“Here I am in your turf again, Befana.” And he kissed her, because of course she knew that he would not return to her unless he had fulfilled the quest she set for him. “Now, my only question is, will you join me in my realm?”
And so that is the story of how La Befana adopted another form, as Mrs. Claus. She agreed to live with him forever after at the North Pole, and she took up the management of the work of the elves and dwarves in the great factory, since she was already on such good terms with the Little People.
But on the Eve of the Annunciation, she returns to her beloved Italy as La Befana, and to this day she still gives gifts and treats to the good children, and of course the occasional lump of coal to the naughty ones, who she loves just as well. In the view of La Befana and Santa Claus, there is always Hope, and that is their eternal gift to all children.
Princess Poysen Ivieee Dec. 2006