Happy La Befana Day! On the eve of January 6th, the witch La Befana swoops down into the chimneys of little children and fills their stockings with either gifts or coal. She travels on a broom, wears a black shawl, and is covered with soot. Once children have received their presents on the morning of the 6th (and usually also candy coal because no child is solely good all year long), parents shuttle them to school in costume where the festivities continue.
Many believe that La Befana dates back to ancient times when the Romans gave each other gifts for the New Year in celebration of the festival of the goddess Strenia. (Interestingly, the word 'strenna' in Italian means 'Christmas gift'.) The actual word 'Befana' derives from the Christian word 'Epifana' or 'Epiphany'.
Folktales say that when the Three Kings set upon their journey, they stopped to ask La Befana directions. She didn't know where the baby Jesus might be, but provided them with shelter and was noted to have been an excellent houskeeper. (Hence, the broom.) The Three Kings asked if she wanted to accompany them on their journey, but La Befana declined, explaining that she had too much housework. After they left, she regretted her decision and set out to find the baby Jesus by herself. She was, however, unsuccessful and continues to search for him to this day.
On the night of the 5th, it is customary to leave out a glass of wine along with some food. Parents tell their children that if they catch a glimpse of La Befana, she will thump them with her broomstick. Consequently, this post goes out to everyone as a warning -- don't leave your beds tonight or you'll catch the tail end of a housekeeping woman's stick!