Although we did not observe the Epiphany growing up Italian American I was surprised at all the traditions and stories attached to La Befana!
Epiphany commemorates the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for Baby Jesus. The traditional Christmas holiday season in Italy lasts through Epiphany. By Martha Bakerjian, About.com Guide
At the Rome Christmas market you can pick a Befano to take home with you, either angle like or similar to a witch (USA perception).
The importance of this day is that Italian children are given gifts from La Befana if they have been good and if not.....
sounds similar to coal in your stocking?
I first heard of La Befana in Como when I asked about Christmas traditions. The stories continued as I traveled south to the end of Italy. Who wouldnt want the holiday to last another 9 days?
So I did a little research on La bafana to find out her history. This became interesting.
La Befana has her own Wikipedia page!
"In popular folklore Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad.
The child's family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana." Hmm is this where we found cookies for Santa?
She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.
But I find the myth behind this story more interesting......
Italy's traditional celebration includes the tale of a witch known as La Befana who arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5 and fills the stockings with toys and sweets for the good children and lumps of coal for the bad ones.
According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the 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. Then 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 11th night, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus. Children hang their stockings on the evening of January 5 awaiting the visit of La Befana. By Martha Bakerjian, About.com Guide