La Befana is an old woman in Italian folklore who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5th) similar to the way that Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus delivers gifts in other parts of the world. Her name is probably derived from the Feast of Epiphany or in Italian, "La Festa dell'Epifania." Children expect that their socks will be filled with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. Being a good housekeeper, parents say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. The child's family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a little bit of food for the Befana. Many Italian kitchens will have La Bafana, portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick, wearing a shawl and smiling.
This is our Befana.
A Christian legend of La Befana says that at the time of the birth of the Christ Child, Befana was spending all of her time cleaning and sweeping. One day the three wise men came to her door in search of the Holy Child. Befana turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. Later Befana noticed a bright light in the sky and thinking that this was lighting the way to the Christ Child, she left her house with some baked goods and gifts for baby Jesus in her bag. She also took her broom to help the new mother clean. Thus Befana began her search for baby Jesus. She searched and searched but never found him. Befana still searches today. On the eve of the Epiphany, Befana goes to houses where there are children and leaves gifst. Although she has been unsuccessful in her search for the baby Jesus, it is said that she leaves gifts for good children because the Christ Child can be found in all children.
A popular tradition says that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, because she doesn't want to be seen. This is probably said to keep children in their beds while parents are distributing candy (or coal) and sweeping the floor on Epiphany Eve.