What’s the big deal with this old lady called La Befana? Well, the anticipation rivals her American counterpart, Santa Claus, as children await her descent.
One significant difference is the Befana arrives on January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany. And, instead of milk and cookies, the Befana expects “una goccia di vino con i biscotti.” A similarity is with misbehaved children. The Italian ones, like the Americans, receive lumps of charcoal or coal in their stockings.
But what's her story? Living alone, in the rugged hills of an Italian town, La Befana receives an unexpected visit one night by three wise men with their entourage. They stopped to ask for directions to Bethlehem. While resting and receiving refreshments from the kind old lady, the men tell her about the coming birth of a Christ Child and invite her to join them. She declines, and says she is too busy; besides she doesn’t know of Bethlehem.
After the caravan leaves, La Befana remembers one night having seen an unusual bright light in the sky. She took it as an omen but did not understand its meaning. And now believing the story of the three Sages, she is overcome with a persistent need to travel to Bethlehem to venerate this Baby. So, she hurries to pack a bag of treats and gifts, to offer the Child, and goes in search of this new wonder.
Just as she was about to give up, an Angel appears before her, tells her to continue and gives her the gift of flight. Straddling her handy broom, which she just happens to have, she flies off to search once again for this special child. And, still, she does not find Him and finally returns home.
She never gave up, and every Epiphany Eve, visits children in the hope of finding Baby Jesus. She visits homes throughout Italy, giving gifts to every child along the way. She eventually comes to understand the Christ Child can be found in all children.
There is a poem about this old lady, which in part says “La Befana Vien di notte, con le scarpe tutte rotte, col cappello alla Romana, viva, viva, la Befana!” Translated: “The Befana comes at night; In worn-out shoes; Dressed as a Roman; Long live the Befana!”