Le Befana is an old woman who gives gifts to the children of Italy on Epiphany Eve, which falls on January 5th. This is very similar to the Santa Claus character. Much like Santa, kids get candy or gifts if they have been good, but receive coal if they are back. One thing that makes her different is that she actually sweeps the home before she departs. It is said that this is meant to sweep away the problems. Instead of milk and cookies, wine and small foods are left.
She is very reminiscent of Halloween witches, as she looks like the stereotypical witch, wearing black, covered in soot and a black shawl. She has a bag for the gifts she is bringing to the children. They call her the Christmas witch, and it wouldn’t be surprising if modern tales at Halloween have borrowed this idea from Le Befana.
There are a few different Christian tales that could explain where her legend derived. She is believed to have been approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before they got to Jesus. They asked her to guide them, but she was unable. She provided them food and shelter, which her being the housekeeper that she was. Thankful, they offered to bring her with them, but she declined. She then changed her mind, but was unable to locate them or Jesus. They say she still searches for him while giving gifts to the children. Another variation states that she didn’t take them in, but upon seeing a star in the sky, tries to find them.
The final legend is that she had a child that she very much loved, but the child died. When the wise men stopped by speaking of going to see the child, the woman became delusional, thinking that Jesus was her child reborn. She was able to eventually meet Jesus, and gave him gifts, which pleased him, and he made her the mother of every child in Italy.
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