Role of Tradition in Culture and Community Building

January 6 is the day Italian children celebrate La Befana, an Italian tradition since the XIII Century. It comes from Christian legend rather than popular culture, but it is the culture that keeps the tradition alive with twists through the ages.

If you're curious about this story, Tony DePaola wrote and illustrated it in The Legend of Old Befana.

In a nutshell, the story is that la Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men who asked her to lead them to the stable where the baby Jesus lay in a manger. La Befana was too busy cleaning her house at the time, so she declined the offer to go with them.

Very soon she realized that she had made a huge mistake, so she 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 was unable to find the stable. Undaunted, la Befana continues to travel the world over to this day searching every house for the Christ child.

Every year, on January 6, the first day of Epiphany, Italian children hold their breaths as they search their stockings for a sign that they have been good that year. For those who have fallen a bit short of model behavior, la Befana leaves lumps of coal. Realizing that no one can be perfect for a whole year, these days la Befana often leaves a sweet “lump of coal” made from black sugar.

The story is alive and well and like Carlo Collodi's story of Pinocchio, this Italian tale contains character-building lessons for children and adults.

Tradition is a good way to create a bridge between young and old, the two groups who focus most not just on doing, but also on the power of being. Connections help build relationships and a sense of community.