Tradition has it that La Befana, an old, poor woman – who is often depicted as a witch – lived in a shack at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. One night, The Three Magi, on their way to find the Christ child, stopped to ask for directions to Bethlehem and for food and shelter. Having provided their needs, the Magi thanked the old woman and invited her to join them in search of the baby Jesus. La Befana begged off, saying she could not leave her home as she had too much house work to do.
Later that night, while asleep, La Befana was awoken by an unusually bright light. Startled and afraid, she took it as a sign to follow the Magi in search of the Christ Child. With her broom in tow, she loaded her bags with candy and treats, and set off looking for the Baby Jesus. Unfortunately, La Befana lost her way, failing to find the Wise Men or the manger. Along the way, she stopped and left treats at houses where children were in case Baby Jesus was inside.
And so, the story continues: Each year on January 5th (the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany), La Befana resumes her search of the Christ Child. As she travels from house to house, she drops off treats to sleeping children in hopes that the baby Jesus might also be with them. Of course, if the child is bad, they will get coal, onions or garlic.
A wonderful tradition in Italy.