THE CIRCLE WILL GO ’ROUND
MY MESSAGE TO PARENTS AND TEACHERS
I have been an adherent of nature-based religions for over thirty years now. During that time, I have watched species disappear, the climate change, and civilization-altering events, such as wars, famines, and pandemics, take place. The one unchanging source of comfort and support for me has always been Great Nature. In the spring, I look forward to the first crocuses and violets. In summer, I can count on the hummingbirds and roses to appear. In the fall, I watch as the maples turn their glowing colors and I collect acorns to make flour. In winter, I delight in the snow and cozy, quiet days of writing in the warm kitchen.
Our forebearers were closer to these kinds of Earth changes because they were not distracted by smartphones, computers, and television. They honored the stations of the Earth year with song, tales told by the fire, and seasonal feasts. It is my hope that this volume will be a guide to the Earth festivals for parents, teachers, and children, providing tales, recipes, and crafts that evoke a slower, more Earth-conscious time. May it pass on to the future the awareness of all the unseen spirits that shape our world and influence our lives, and may it illuminate the sacred within every leaf and flower.
TO THE KIDS WHO READ THIS BOOK
Please read these stories out loud! Read them to your parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters. If you don’t have siblings, then consider reading them to your pets! Look at the date given for each story. Read the winter tales in winter and the summer tales in summer. Make a craft to go along with each story, and cook a dish that celebrates the season. Ask your family to help you, and make it a celebration that inspires all your senses--touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell, and imagination!
LA BEFANA, THE CHRISTMAS WITCH
An Italian Tale for the New Year
Key Figures and Terms
Gods, Goddesses, Spirits, and Magical Beings:
La Befana (LAH BEH-fa-nah)--the Christmas witch, who brings gifts to children.
Strenua (STREH-noo-ah)--Roman Goddess of the new year, purification, and well-being. Her name comes from the same Latin root as the word strenuous, meaning an activity that is hard and takes a lot of force to accomplish. That tells you how powerful this Goddess was!
Italian Words to Know:
grappa (GRAH-pah)--a brandy made from the grape pulp that is left over after winemaking
Via Sacra (VEE-ah SAHK-rah)--the main street in ancient Rome. Its name means “Sacred Way”
In Italian tradition, La Befana is the Christmas witch who brings gifts to good children--and coal to the bad ones, much like Santa Claus--on the night before the Christian festival of Epiphany on January 6. But La Befana has much deeper roots. She is said to be a modern version of the ancient Roman Goddess Strenua, whose festival honored the New Year and took place on January 1. Strenua is, of course, much older than Christianity.
It was the Winter Solstice--the darkest Moon on the darkest night at the darkest time of the year--and La Befana was still asleep in her high mountain refuge. She stirred, rolling over to make herself more comfortable on her large feather bed, and as she moved, a few white feathers billowed out from her pillows. They sailed out the window, turning into large, lazy snowflakes that rode the mountain winds and slowly drifted down onto the village below.
The next time she turned over, day was dawning. The very first fingers of the new year’s sunlight illuminated the crags of her mountain home. La Befana was dreaming, remembering the days long ago when she was still revered as a Goddess.
In ancient Rome she had been known as Strenua, the Goddess who made the people active and strong. She was the bringer of good health, purification, strength, and gifts and even had her own temple at the head of the Via Sacra, Rome’s main road.
Fragrant, sacred bay laurel trees grew within her temple precinct. On her feast day, January 1, people would exchange bunches of laurel bound with red thread, with each twig bearing exactly seven leaves. They also gave each other gifts of figs, dates, honey, and coins to carry sweetness into the new year. Carrying twigs from her sacred grove, celebrants marched in a grand procession from her shrine into the city to bless and purify the inhabitants.
But as time moved on, a new religion appeared, and Strenua was demoted. Now the people knew her only as a Faery or a witch, and they warned their children not to look for her too carefully. They said that like all Faeries, she preferred to stay invisible, and if anyone did happen to see her, she might thump them on the head with her broomstick!
One day, soon after the Winter Solstice, La Befana finally opened her eyes. A ray of sunlight had pierced the shadows on the mountain and prodded her awake. She yawned and stretched and then slowly rolled out of bed. She knew it was time to perform her divine duties, just as she had for thousands of years--bringing joy, strength, and purification to every home--and she began to assemble gifts to deliver on the eve of her special day.
The very first home she visited was always the house where three children, Nicolo, Matteo, and Lucia, now lived, because (even though they didn’t realize it) their little stone hut was perched right on the side of her mountain. The children had been trying very hard to be good because they knew La Befana would soon be on her way. The last thing they wanted was a piece of coal or an onion or a bulb of garlic in their stocking! That had happened to their cousin Paolo the year before because he kept forgetting to feed the dog and had even cut off the tip of his sister’s pigtail while she was sleeping (what a mean thing to do!).
Good children always got oranges and chocolates and nice new clothes, so this year Paolo was trying very hard to behave, too.
On this, the day before La Befana’s arrival, their mother was busy baking a traditional La Befana cake, washing fruits, and soaking sweet chestnuts to put into dishes for the feast that night. Their father and uncles gathered wood into a great pile to make a bonfire for the celebration. They knew that La Befana’s magic is especially associated with the hearth and with fire. The fire would carry their thoughts and wishes, and anything else put into it, skyward. As a winter spirit, La Befana would bless the fire and travel upward through the flames, taking the old year with her, renewing it and transforming it into a new year below. And that evening, Nonna, the children’s grandmother, went to the well at the edge of town. She knew that water gathered on that night had magical properties and would protect the house and family from harm all year.
For the family, La Befana was a Faery, a witch, a wise woman, and a great magician, all rolled into one. She traveled on a magical scopazzo, a broom made with an ash wood handle and birch twigs, which kept her in close contact with the trees and other nature spirits of the wild.
When La Befana was around, it was a good time to do divinations. For example, a sprig of sedum (stonecrop) could be left on the windowsill overnight. If it was perky and fresh the next day, it meant a new year of wealth and happiness. If it was wilted and limp in the morning, that meant your luck was running out.
Nonna did her own divination with flour. While making bread, she scooped out a small pile of flour to make a well in the center of the batter before adding the water and eggs. She could see images in the floury well when she poured in the liquid.
It was also a fine time to tell stories around the fire, such as how La Befana as a wise woman taught the people to be civilized--especially when she enforced the rules of good behavior in children!
A little Befana doll hung on the family’s Yule tree. She was dressed in a black dress and a black shawl so the soot she collected on her way down the chimney wouldn’t show. La Befana was also known to ride a magical donkey, so a little donkey ornament hung beside her.
Nonna placed a plate of food and a glass of wine by the hearth as an offering to refresh La Befana when she came down the chimney. The offering always included a sprig of spearmint, bread, and cheese. La Befana would not actually eat the food, but she would absorb its essence, strengthening her for the nightlong journey. It made her very happy to receive these refreshments, because it reminded her of the gifts people used to bring to her in her ancient temple.
Nonna placed a new broom near the hearth in hopes that La Befana would bless it and sweep the floor before she left, clearing away the old year and bringing in the new.
Late that night, as the children slept and the grown-ups sipped grappa by the fire outside, La Befana did come. Invisible to everyone (except the family cat, who could see all the Faeries and spirits that entered the home), she blew on the new broom to bless it so it would purify the house all year. Then she touched and blessed each gift and piece of candy put out for the children to ensure their health, happiness, and protection.
And that year, even Paolo got the gifts he wanted!
Make Your Own Besom--A Magical Broom
La Befana travels the world on her broom, and you can honor her by making one. Leave it out on the night of January 5 for La Befana to bless. You can use it to ritually sweep bad vibes and energies out of the house all year or to purify a ceremonial area.
Traditionally a besom is made with an ash wood handle and birch twigs, but you can use any of the trees listed on page [x-ref]. Just pay attention to the qualities of the tree you pick! You can even make a besom with feathers, thick grasses, or other long, pliable materials. (If you do use grasses or dry natural fibers, first soak them in water overnight to make them flexible.)
This kind of broom is more of a prop or ritual object than a really sturdy broom for cleaning the house, so don’t worry about how professional it looks.
- Gather your twigs, trim them so they are the same length, and lay them on the ground in as tight a bundle as you can manage. The thicker ends of the twigs should be at the top and the thinner ends at the bottom.
- Trim the top of the bundle so the thick ends are neatly cut and even. Use garden shears or, if your branches are very thin, scissors.
- Leave the bottom ends loose, flowing, and slightly flared out.
- Tie the top of the bundle of twigs with wire or natural twine, going around the bundle several times and weaving in and out a few times. Keep going until the bundle is very tight and secure.
- Get a fairly straight, thick branch for your handle. Peel off the bark, or not, as you please. (A crooked handle works too.)
- Find the middle of your twig bundle and push the handle down into it.
- Turn the broom upside down and, holding the bundle tightly, bash it into the ground a few times to more securely insert the handle.
- Tie more wire or string around the top of the twig bundle if needed, or insert a few nails through the twigs and into the handle to fasten everything securely.
Now that you have a besom, you can ritually clean the house. “Sweep” every room out as you sing or chant, starting with the corners, then sweeping to the middle of the room and finally out the door. Have a person follow you with a bowl of salt water, sprinkling it around each room you have swept. A third person should follow with a white candle and hold it up to all the dark places in each room (corners, closets, and so on).
Go through every room of the house this way, singing or chanting and sweeping out any disquiet energies. End by sweeping all the energies out the back door.
Do not use the broom for everyday cleaning. Instead, store it somewhere safe and special, bristle side up, or hang it on a wall. If you like, you can personalize your besom with stones, feathers, crystals, and other symbols that are meaningful to you.
When you’re ready to travel, sit with your besom or lie down with it by your side, and visualize yourself flying through the air to speak with the spirits and the Faeries or even La Befana herself!