Although the figure of Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), with his red suit and big white beard, is becoming more widespread here, traditionally the children of Italy anxiously await a visit from another figure, La Befana, hanging up their stockings on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, rather than Christmas Eve.
A friendly, witch-like character who rides around on a broom, La Befana is often smiling and carries a sack or basket filled with candy and gifts. She is one of Italy’s oldest and most celebrated legendary figures, and, like many Italian traditions, La Befana represents a mixture of ancient folklore and Christianity. The name “Befana” is derived from the word Epifania, the Italian name for the religious festival of the Epiphany.
There is a legend associated with La Befana. It tells that the three wise men stopped at La Befana’s house to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem. They invited her to join them, but she refused as she was busy cleaning her house. She promised that she would catch them up when she was finished, but by the time she had finished the cleaning they were long gone. She frantically began running after them with presents for baby Jesus, still carrying her broom. Magically, she began to fly on her broomstick but still could not find the wise men or the baby Jesus. Since then, on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, she flies on her broom leaving gifts for other children. She brings presents for the good and pieces of coal for the bad.
For Italian children, La Befana is even more anticipated than Santa Claus, and on the morning of January 6, children all over Italy wake to find their stockings filled with candy for having been good—or a piece of coal if they have been bad. Traditionally, they may always expect to find a lump of coal in their stockings (the “coal” is actually rock candy made black with caramel colouring), as every child has been bad at least once during the past year.