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On January 5th throughout Italy, excited children prepare for a late-night visit from La Befana by hanging up socks to be filled with small delights. Befana, a grandmotherly woman who resembles a kindly witch, brings gifts to good little children, depositing them in stockings hung above the hearth, then tidying up a bit before taking her leave.
Befana arrives after children have gone to bed on the eve of the Festa dell’Epifania (Feast of Epiphany), which is a celebration of the visit of the Three Kings or Magi to the newborn Christ child in Bethlehem. It’s thought that her name derives from the word “Epifania.” Another theory posits that an important figure from Italian folklore is a Christian version of an earlier Roman goddess, Sabine (also known as “Strenia” and “Bastrina”).
While the ancient goddess connection is probably accurate, Befana has been transformed through the ages from her likely ancient Roman origins. The medieval figure conceived of in 13th century Rome is very similar to the grandmotherly Befana children adore today.