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Long Live La Befana, the Santa Claus of Italy

Santa Claus isn’t coming to town. Not in Italy. This country is La Befana’s turf, although the two operate the same way: climbing down chimneys. We suspect La Befana has an easier time at it, though.

For Italian children, there are more gifts to be opened even after Christmas has passed, up to the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January, a celebration of the Three Wise Men. On Epiphany’s Eve, the “good witch” brings her broom and leaves presents in socks hung by the furnace. Children who have been bad get a lump of “coal,” which is actually a piece of rock candy with black caramel covering.

Cookies and milk aren’t part of La Befana’s diet. Instead, it is customary to leave out some wine and a meal for her.

There are many stories about the good witch. Some say she is the modern version of the Roman goddess Strenia, who was in charge of giving out New Year’s gifts. According to other legends, the Magi asked La Befana for directions to Bethlehem, and wanted her to come with them, but she refused because she had too much housework. After bright light and a band of angels persuaded her to go, it was too late, and she continues to look for the Christ-child up to this day. Another tale has it the Three Wise Men asked her for food and drink, and she turned them down.

As the Italian poem goes, “Viva, Viva La Befana!”

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