The Feast of the Epiphany, an important post-Christmas date on the Christian calendar, is celebrated on January 6 as a national holiday in Italy. The tradition of La Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to Santa Claus.
According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the Baby Jesus’ manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. A shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died. She got lost and never found the manger.
Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year on the night before Epiphany, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus. La Befana visits all the children of Italy to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad.
Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food for the Befana.