In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to St Nicholas or Santa Claus. But children get gifts from both Father Christmas and Befana.
A popular belief is that her name derives from the Feast of Epiphany or in Italian, “La Festa dell’Epifania”. Epiphania (Epiphany in English) is a Latin word with Greek origins. Epiphany means either the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) or “manifestation (of the divinity).”
There is evidence to suggest that Befana is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strina. In the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John J. Blunt (John Murray, 1823), the author says:
This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year’s gifts, ‘Strenae,’ from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character.
In popular folklore Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana.
She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.