The name Befana appeared historically for the first time in writing in a poem by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549. She is portrayed like an old ugly woman, dressed in dark rags who during the night between 5th and 6th January flies over the houses riding her broom and entering through the chimneys (in modern apartments through a keyhole). Into the socks that children left hanging near the fireplace she leaves candies and gifts for good children, black coal (actually black sugar today), garlic and onions to the bad ones. Parents of course would always include some coal over the gifts, to cheat their children. And the night before the family leaves some wine and cakes for the old lady.
The Christian Tradition
The name "Befana" is a popular version of the Greeek term "Epiphany" which was the festivity following Christmas, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus on 6th January. According to the legend the three wise men on their journey were stopped by an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that they were following a star that would lead them to a newborn baby, and invited her to come along. But she replied that she was busy sweeping and cleaning and did not go. When she realized that the baby was the Redeemer that all the world had been waiting for her regret was so great that she continues to wander about Italy and at the Epiphany (January 6, when the Wise Men finally found the Child Jesus), begins rewarding good children and disappointing those who were bad.
This was the feast that the children used to wait for throughout the year, in the times when Babbo Natale (created in Coca Cola colors, the fat and joyous symbol of wealth imported from America, where he was derived from the figure of St Nicholas, who in Southern Italy used to bring gifts to children in past centuries) was unknown in Italy. The bony, ragged old lady was much nearer in spirit to the poverty of Jesus, and was the only gift-giver for children. The gifts she delivered were reminders of the gifts that on that same night the Magi following the star had offered to the Divine Child, born in a poor manger in Bethlehem.
The feast of these fabulous old lady, so much beloved and feared by Italian children, takes origin from the "old lady" which was burned in the squares to celebrate the end of the year, a symbol of time cycles always ending and beginning again. The Befana is also related to the mysterious rites of the Celtic peoples once inhabiting the whole Pianura Padana and part of the Alps, when wicker puppets were set on fire in honor of ancient gods. The witch, the woman magician (the priestess of the ancient celtic culture that knew the secrets of nature) took the form of the Befana. The "coal" that she would leave to the nasty children was actually also a symbol of fertility connected to the sacred bonfires and the "ceppo". The other almost universal symbol accompanying the old lady, the broom, that clearly resembles a magic wand, is also connected to the tree and the nature rituals of the Celts in their forests. In the pre-Christian calendar solstice rites used to celebrate the cycle of the sun, and were slowly merged with the cycle of the life of man and the generations, following one another. This eternal cycle was represented by symbols to exorcise anxiety. In many cultures the relations between grown-ups and children is based on the observance of rules achieved through the fear of punishments and expectations of reward. To this family of figures belong the ogre and witch, transformed into the more positive and pedagogical figures of Santa Claus and the Befana. As a testimonial of this connection, here is an old Italian lullaby that goes