Italian children are just luckier. They receive gifts from both Babbo Natale (“Father Christmas”) on December 25th AND from la Befana on January 6th.
La who?! The Befana is the at times stern and at times simpatica old crone of pre-Christian origins that rings out the old year and brings in the new one, delivering gifts (or coal! ..usually made of black rock-sugar, occasionally real) into children’s stockings.
She’s tied into the Christian tradition as the old woman who passed up an invitation to follow the Three Kings on their way to pay homage to the newborn Baby Jesus. Realizing her mistake, she immediately set out but was too late and could not find the manger… and so has since been delivering gifts to all households with children, searching for the Christ Child.
The following is a little ditty that is sung to (and by) children, almost as an invocation for the arrival of the Befana. Auguri per la Befana (yesterday) to all!
La Befana vien di notte,
con le scarpe tutte rotte,
neve, gelo, tramontana,
viva viva la befana!
La Befana comes at night,
wearing her ruined shoes,
snow, frost, winter winds,
long live la Befana!