On the night of January 5th the 3 Kings aided by their camels always brought us gifts, sometimes the big gifts arrived on Dec 25th and sometimes they were reserved for the 3 Kings, who liked to leave things in your shoes, and if you were bad their camel left something in your shoes. In Italy it is La Befana, who is brings the gifts that usher out the Christmas season.K
Sometimes we called it "Little Christmas", and sometimes Epiphany, but one thing was sure it was the day before the decorations were taken down and packed away, the leftover cookies, if there were anyway, were put into the freezer...and of course there were presents.
In the years when we followed the tradition of adding to the nativity scene the figurines on the day they were supposed to arrive, this was the day that the magnificently dressed Wise men and their beautifully adorned camels were placed into the scene. It always seemed a shame to me that these beautiful figurines were only on display for a day or two, they were fascinating. Then again, that might have been the reason.
The story of La Befana is relatively new to me, and the most complete version I could find is reposted here for those of you who haven't heard of her, and she has been around for a very long time, certainly longer that Santa Claus. In some stories, she rides a broom, in some she walks and in some she has a donkey, sometimes called a witch and sometimes a grandmother. I find her story beautiful.
The Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated January 6 with a national holiday in Italy, and the tradition of La Befana are a big part of Italian Christmas celebrations. Epiphany commemorates the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for Baby Jesus. The traditional Christmas holiday season in Italy lasts through Epiphany.
Italy's traditional celebration includes the tale of a witch known as La Befana who arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5 and fills the stockings with toys and sweets for the good children and lumps of coal for the bad ones.
According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. Then a shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died. She got lost and never found the manger.
Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year on the 11th night, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus. Children hang their stockings on the evening of January 5 awaiting the visit of La BefanvTherefore, every year, on the night of January 5th, La Befana will travel on her magic broom to every house in Italy, in search of the baby Jesus to bring him gifts. Climbing down the chimneys, she brings candy or fruit to the children that were good and black coal, onions or garlic to the children that were naughty. The children will leave out their stockings, and even their shoes, hoping to awaken to some candy. Similar to the Santa Claus tradition, many of the children will write notes to La Befana and even leave out food and wine for her. ~~ about.com
In the city of Urbania, there is a festival in her honor from January 2-6, among other things there is La casa della Befana, where children can talk to Befana, much as children here go to see Santa. In fact it is not unusual to Santa and Befana together. Children also write letters and even email Befana at email@example.com
In Venice, theRegatta delle Bafane is held each Jan 5, men dress up as Befana and sail down the Grand Canal.
Befana, who usually enters a home by coming down the chimney, will leave a lump of coal in the stocking or shoes of bad children and in Sicily she sometimes leave switches in the stocking of the unruly children. It is common for children to receive "carbone", a black rock candy that looks very much like coal.
I think i would rather get some of Befana's "carbone" than what the camel leave.