Other than having a crone-like appearance, the Italian La Befana isn’t as terrifying as some other European Christmas legends. She was first recorded historically in 1549, in verse by the Italian poet Agnolo Firenzuola. Here La Befana was portrayed as an old and ugly woman. She flew on her broom at night, sometime between January 5 and 6th. She would land on the roofs of houses and, rather like Father Christmas, entered them through the chimney, leaving candles and presents for the good children and coal for the bad. If they were wise, the householders would also have made La Befana an offering of cakes and wine.
This Italian Mother Christmas predates the advent of St Nicholas in Italy. Her name is derived from the Italian for Epiphany: January 6th, the last day of Christmas. This is the day the Magi visited Christ. It is also the traditional time for people to mark the end of the dark days of Winter times and to celebrate the growth of the light of the sun. Both of these aspects combine in the legend of La Befana.
The legend tells how La Befana was an elderly Italian widow at the time of the birth of Christ. While sweeping out her house, she was visited by the Magi who were on their way to find the Christ child. The Wisemen were lost, but La Befana was able to direct them by telling them to follow a large and unusual star. Grateful, the Magi invited the old lady to join them on their journey. However, La Befana refused as she said she had too much housework to do.
However, when she realized she had missed out on seeing the son of god, La Befana was full of regret. So, instead of using the broom to clean, she took to the sky on it and began to roam Italy. Every Epiphany, she imitated The Magi by bestowing her own gifts on good children- and punishing those who were bad with a lump of coal.
However, La Befana is older than Christ. She originates from the symbol of the ‘old lady’ burned in the squares of Italian towns and villages at the end of every Christmas. Her consolation prize of coal, like the whippings of Krampus and the Preschen, was not originally intended as a punishment, but instead representing the cleansing power of the Epiphany fire- the same symbolism imbued in her broom.