Epiphany takes away all the holidays. Ah, Neroni felt a little sad as 5 January came around, for on the morrow, all the celebrating, all the festivities for the Natale season would end. Even in the cat world, one must get on with real life, the survival of one through the remainder of winter. But, to make the heart happy, La Befana comes along with festivals for those three men riding on camels at the end of the season.
The Ricci family had returned home from New Year’s in Rome with the cousins and resumed the semi-holiday feel on Monday and Tuesday with half-days at work and school, then finally the eve of the Epiphany, or the revealing to the world of the Christ Child, rolled around on Wednesday. It order to be ready, Cecelia and Simone helped Nonni clean house, and then pulled out their long, multi-colored stockings that she had knitted for them. They also dug out one for Pietra who was at the church getting ready for the mass early tomorrow. Mama rushed around the kitchen making those candies for the candy vendor at the town festival, those candy rocks of coal, little candy oranges and broom sticks, as well as star and camel shaped cookies for tomorrow’s holiday treat after dinner.
The girls moved quickly, for they knew there were a few more things that would have to do before the festivities began in the evening. Their duty to have ready an evening meal made them ask to run to the butcher with the boar’s head over the door. “Of course,” said Nonni as she put 10 Euros in their hands for some prosciutto, and added, “We also need some bread from the baker as your mother and I did not make bread today, a holiday for us, and we also need some peppers and onions from the vegetable stand to fry to go along with the sandwiches. Buy a treat for your mom and dad’s stocking while you are out, too.” She kissed and hugged them as if they were going to Rome instead of just down the lane and then to the right. Out the door they flew, as if on their own broomsticks, and Neroni scooted out with them, as he was always ready to see that door crack and to make a quick exit.
Actually, as he made his way down the street, the life-size dolls of La Befana hanging from neighbors’ windows and dressed in patchy skirts, old worn-down shoes, pointed hats, and black shawls while carrying broomsticks, frightened the black cat. He found her eyes to be always following him, and although he knew he had been good throughout the year and the Natale season, she spooked him and he fluffed out his tail as he ran under 20 of her to get to Mr. Gray Gatto’s house. He wanted none of her until tomorrow evening. Neroni and Mr. Gray headed to the main piazza to watch the workmen putting up the tents and stalls for the evening market and festival. Miss Ginny at Gionni’s Pasticceria poured some cream into a bowl for the two to share after their constant meow’s brought her to the door to see what was happening. She, too, stood and watched the workers getting ready for the march of the wise men into the piazza to deliver their gifts to the Bambino Jesus at the live presepe.
A couple of streets behind the piazza, on the edge of the hill, three men of the town, all with beards, were looking at the old costumes, all robes and cord belts and head gear made of taffeta and silk, golds, greens, purples, and reds, and pointy shoes in cracked brown leather. Neroni and Mr. Gatto wandered into the house after hearing their laughter and excitement at dressing as the three wise men, although these signori were wondering how wise they had been to accept this job for tonight’s celebration. The cats watched and meowed as the men began to dress, with a little sip of a sweet vino and a bite of biscotti to help give them the courage to pretend to be these long-ago characters from this beloved story from San Matthew. But between the request of their wives, children, and Father Antonio, these three gentlemen could not say, “No, I cannot do this.” Rather, Neroni’s owner, Aldo responded, “I will be honored to carry on the tradition of the wise men carrying the gifts to our Lord Jesus. Be sure to ask Basilio and Arturo, my good amici, to do this with me.”
After licking up drops of the vino and crumbs of the biscotti, Neroni and Mr. Gatto ran out the door as Papa shook out the gold robe he was to wear. They hurried home for a quick nap before the evening’s celebrations began…
After a quick slurp of the cream that Mama and Nonni had poured into his bowl as they had their early evening espresso, Neroni watched as the family, minus Papa, bundled up against the cold again, and hurried out the door, with him at their heels. They all sang their epiphany songs, songs of Befana and wise men, as they headed toward the market and the presepe, to await the entrance of the papas, uh, wise men into the piazza. A tiny mist of of light snow made the twinkling lights hung over the market tents and the manger stall seem to glow brighter. Again, Neroni hurried past the hanging Befanas only to see a REAL Befana, all cackling in her ragged clothes and handing out candy to the children of the town. He scurried to the side with his tail big again. Music floated from the little village quartet under one of the tents, and everyone greeted their friends and neighbors with hugs, the double-cheek kiss, and lots of “Buona sera,” floated on the evening snow, too.
Finally the special bagpiper, from the hills farther to the north, began the special eastern sounding melody and as one the crowd turned to the lane just above the piazza. They came, that very special trio, the three papas, the wise men of the story and of the small town, each followed by their rides, three beautiful horses…no camels here. Each man carried the appropriate gift, a cask of gold, a jar for aromatic frankincense, and the bottle holding the oil of myrrh. San Nicola Chiesa and Father Antonio graciously lent these holders from their storeroom for religious processions. Walking slowly, they approached the presepe and kneeled in front of Bambino Jesus and Maria and offered their precious gifts. Turning to the applause of the crowd, they took their places in the scene so that the town newspaper and everyone could snap a picture.
Suddenly the local firemen put the ladder on their one truck up to the top of the movie house and there, on the roof, stood La Befana, yelling that she needed help. Two firemen ran up the ladder, ropes in hand, ready to rescue her. Before they could grab her, she grabbed a zip line and swept across the piazza, landed in front of the market tents, and began to draw handfuls of candy from her deep pockets and to throw them out to the children. The Ricci family loved the delicious chocolates that La Befana gave to them, rich, dark and full of hazelnuts. Neroni and Mr. Gatto chased happily after the toy mice that Pietra purchased from the tent with all the tricks and masks and other novelties. The gatti played and ran as the children laughed and giggled.
After more singing, a bit of shopping, and cups of hot chocolate from one of the tents, the family turned to go back up the hill to home. Neroni had carried his new toy to Pietra and dropped it at his feet, and Pietra put the mouse in his pocket and picked up his favorite buddy, Neroni, while Simone picked up Mr. Gatto. Off to home they slowly walked, snow falling all around. Mr. Gatto jumped out of Simone’s arms at his door, and Simone knocked on the door. Old Mrs. Magori opened it and the cat ran in, Simone gave her a handful of candy from the festival, and told her, “Bouna Notte, e epifania felice,” as the old lady smiled and returned a, “Grazie,” with a lovely smile. Neroni meowed his own, “Bouna notte,” to his old cat friend, and the family returned to their home.
Getting into their pajamas, they took their multi-colored stockings to the chairs around the dining table and placed them for La Befana to place any gifts she might need to deliver during the night. Shortly the door opened and their own Papa, their favorite wise man, entered to hugs, kisses, and a mug of hot chocolate and some of the candy from the market. Neroni was proud, too, of his owner, and rubbed against the lovely fabric of the gold robe and meowed his cat greeting and cheers for a job well done,
“Meow, meow, meow, so glad you are home. Now I can go to my bed, make my three turns on the old blanket, and bend my knees, curl up, and go to sweet sleep.” And off he went to dream of his new toy, the mouse, and of the next evening when the town would gather again to throw all those old witches, La Befani, into the big bon fire in the piazza, where the sparks would fly into the sky and watchers would make predictions as to what the new year would bring. Neroni smiled as the witches burned in his dream and the sparks looked like dozens of mice, fat and yummy.