An Italian Christmas legend that involves an old peasant lady. Of course, there are many variations of the story, but she is basically seen as one of the many precursors to the modern day Santa Claus.

One variation portrays La Befana as a hag-like peasant woman whose main focus in life was to keep her house in tiptop shape and as clean as possible.  Legend has it that the Three Wise Men stopped at La Befana's house on their way to Bethlehem. After dining with her, they invited her to follow them in their search for the Christ child. She said no since she needed to wash and clean. She particularly would not abandon sweeping her floor.  Realizing her mistake (and the assumed insult to the Christ Child) she hurried out the door after them a few minutes later. She never found them, and has wandered the earth on Epiphany Eve ever since in search of the Christ Child.  She leaves small toys and fruit in any home she finds where a child resides – just in case it is the Christ Child.  Yet, she will also leave coal for any bad girls or boys she finds. 

She is often pictured as a typical peasant woman, in a long wool skirt with a cotton shirt, with an apron dangling from her waist and her hair up in a scarf. Magically, she was sometimes said to have the ability to fly on her broom but she still could not find the Wise Men or the Christ child.

Another version of the story starts with King Herod's declaration that the first born male child and each male child born in that year was to be slain. It was his desire to kill the child reported to have been born the new "King." Soldiers rampaged villages throughout the country murdering male children. One mother became so stricken with grief that she was unable to cry nor accept the loss of her son. She looked and looked around her house for her baby son. She became convinced that her child was not dead, but instead lost. She placed all her child's belongings onto a tablecloth and bundled it at the end to carry it over her shoulder and set out searching from house to house for him.

To this woman it seemed much time had passed as she searched, yet, in only a few days, she came upon a child. Convinced that she had found her lost son, she placed the cloth sack containing all her son's belongings at the base of the manger where the child laid. The child was Jesus Christ and in gratitude to the woman's generosity, He gave the woman a wonderful blessing. One night a year for all eternity, the woman He named "La Befana" for "giver of gifts," would have all the children of the world as her own. On that night, she would be able to visit each one, bringing them clothing and toys. On the night of January 5 (and the morning of January 6) each year, children all over Italy find their stockings filled with sweet curly candy for being very good or a dark piece of coal if they have been bad. During the night of La Befana's visit, she is hosted by each family with a plate containing broccoli and spice sausage plus a small glass of wine.

In modern times, La Befana is only seen on rare occasions and indeed lives in the imaginations of small children. This is a small chant used by some Italian children:

La Befana comes at night
In tattered shoes
Dressed in the Roman style
Long live la Befana!!

She brings cinders and coals
To the naughty children
To the good children
She brings sweets and lots of gifts.


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