Christmas gift giving in Italy doesn’t involve a cheery fat fellow in a red fur trimmed suit and it doesn’t necessarily happen on December 25th. The holiday season in Italy extends well into the New Year when La Befana, the Christmas Witch,visits Italian children on the eve of January 6th. La Befana arrives on the eve of the Epiphany, to fill children’s stockings with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal (black rock candy) if they are bad. Although in Italy Santa is a little old lady wearing a black shawl traveling by broomstick rather than a sleigh, La Befana does fly down the chimney covered with ashes and soot with a bundle of toys flung on her back.
In fact the tradition of La Befana is all about gift giving with vestiges of ancient manners and customs dating to pre-Christian folklore when the Roman goddess Strenia brought gifts of figs, dates, and honey to celebrate the beginning of a new year. In the Christian version, the Three Wise Men stopped to ask La Befana for directions to Bethlehem and invited her to join them on their journey to find the Christ Child. She refused, saying she had too much work to do. Regretting her decision La Befana began searching for the Wise Men but could not find them or the Christmas stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child leaving sweets at every house with children to remember the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to baby Jesus.