The Italian Almanac
The gift-bearing 'Befana' witch delighted children all over Italy with her annual appearance on the Catholic church's feast of the Epiphany. The Befana is the mythic old witch who is said to fly into children's homes on her broom during the night between January 5 and 6, filling stockings with sweets and small presents for good kids, and lumps of coal for naughty ones. Many children love the coal as much as the other goodies though, as she does not bring fuel for fires but specially sweetened edible black stuff that does not look too appealing but actually tastes nice.
She was also busy showing up at the traditional processions and parades that take place all over the country on the Epiphany, a national holiday in Italy. One of the biggest parades was on Rome's Via della Conciliazione, the main street running from the bank of the Tiber to St Peter's Square. Here the Befana was accompanied by mounted police, people dressed as ancient Roman soldiers, Medieval knights, ladies, crusaders, drummers and standard-bearers doing synchronised flag-throwing displays.
Special Christmas markets in many Italian towns have stalls brandishing colored stockings and candy and are decorated with old witches on brooms. The Tuscan town of Carrara, meanwhile, broke the Guinness record for the world's longest Befana stocking by unfurling one that was 72.98 metres long.
The Catholic Church celebrates the Epiphany as the day the Three Wise Men from the East arrived in Bethlehem to venerate the baby Jesus and present him with gifts. Although a longer-standing part of Italy's Christmas festivities than Santa Claus, Father Christmas has started to overshadow the Befana with children here, in part because she is conceived as stingier and her gifts much smaller.
The name 'Befana' is a corruption of "Epiphany", which comes from the Greek 'epifaneia', meaning illumination, apparition, manifestation. The origins of the generous old hag are said to be rooted in a mix of pagan, folk and Christian traditions. The Befana has spawned many legends of her own, like that of the Three Wise Men asking directions to Bethlehem from an old woman they encountered along the road.