In Italy, presents are delivered to children on the eve of 5 January, Epiphany (also known as Three Kings Day) by a benevolent crone named La Befana. Children tidied up their rooms and hung socks from their bedposts, hoping to earn little gifts from the Christmas Witch. For the well-behaved, La Befana left figs, honey, dates, candy, and other small gifts, but for the naughty, she left onions, garlic, coal, or a switch. Although families left a glass of wine and a plate of food for the hag, any who dared spy on her work received a thump on the head from her ever-present broom. If feeling generous, La Befana sweeps the abodes, as though sweeping away the previous years’ troubles.
Some historians theorize La Befana derives from the Roman goddess Strenia. Strenia presided over the distribution of New Year’s gifts of fruits and sweets in ancient Roman households.
Another legend places her in Bethlehem when Mary bore Jesus. The magi stopped at her house to ask if she knew where to find the new-born king. She did not know of Jesus’ whereabouts, but she offered hospitality to the travelers. La Befana’s reputation for excellent housekeeping saw her rise early to begin chores. The grateful magi asked La Befana to join them in their quest. “Alas, I am too busy,” she replied, and they proceeded following the Star to find Jesus. Later in the day, La Befana reconsidered and sought the magi, but she could not find them or the King.
The tradition states that La Befana regretted missing meeting the holy family, and so on the night of the magi, Epiphany, she travels in search of him. She leaves presents for good children because in them she sees the spirit of God. She hope to warn the wicked from their bad courses with her messages.
Old lady puppets resembling La Befana often are cast into fires on the night after the New Year in Italy, as though representing the old year’s leaving.
Though since WWII Santa delivers presents to the kids in Italy on Christmas Eve, the witch remains in favor. Throughout Italy and in places with dense Italian populations, parades and performances celebrate the crone. As far away as Toronto finds La Befana choirs singing the praises of the popular Christmas witch.