While Italian children believe in Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), they also have La Befana, an old witch-looking woman who rides a broom and delivers presents on the night before Epiphany, (Epiphania) which is celebrated January 6. This marks the final day of the stagione natale, the Christmas season.
There are different accounts for the woman who inspired this legend, but all agree that she lived at the time of Christ’s birth. One tale says she housed the three magi on their journey to visit the newborn king, but declined their invitation to join them on their journey, another says she denied them accommodations but had a change of heart. Either way has her leaving her home and searching for baby Jesus, riding her broomstick (she was known as an excellent housekeeper) and leaving candies (caramelle) for children along the way.
Modern tradition has La Befana leaving good children toys and candy or fruit, while the naughty ones get coal, onions or garlic (carbone, cipolle, aglio). Families leave a small glass of wine and a plate with a few tidbits of food (typically local fare). Being a good housekeeper, La Befana may sweep the floor before she leaves the house, representing the sweeping away of the year’s problems.
I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping for La Befana to make an appearance this year in America. Anyone who would sneak in at night to secretly clean my floors is always welcome in my house, and not just on January 6!