The Italian tradition of La Befana is a seemingly familiar one – a fantastical character flying through the skies, bringing presents to good children, and coal to bad ones. However, this story came long before Father Christmas ( or Babbo Natale! ) – in fact, the tradition began around the 13th century.
This story is tied in with the religious story of the three Wise Men. The story goes that, early in their journey, the Wise Men arrived at Befana’s house, where she gave them food and shelter. They then invited her to journey with them to Bethlehem. At first, she declined their invitation. However, later that night, she hopped on her magic broom and flew after them, but arrived too late. Now, every year on January 6th, she flies to all the children’s houses and brings them candy and presents – but only to the good ones!
This story created many fun traditions in Italy that lasted as long as up to today! These include children hanging up stockings for La Befana to stuff with sweets, a four day festival in the town of Urbania, and even leaving notes and treats for the good witch herself. This ancient tradition is perhaps evolved from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. At the end of this 2 – week festival just before the winter solstice, the Romans would visit the temple of Juno. At this temple, they would have their fortunes reads by an old lady. This custom could certainly have inspired the gift giving of a kind old woman.