This is the legend according to John D. Calandra, of the Italian American Institute:
La Befana is an old woman who lives in a house in the hills of Italy. She once had a husband and child, but now lives alone. Befana spends her days sweeping and baking. One night, Befana notices a bright light in the sky; she thinks nothing of it and goes back to her work of sweeping and baking. Later, a glorious caravan led by Three Wise Men stop and ask Befana for directions to Bethlehem and invite Befana to join them in their search for the Christ Child. But Befana is too busy and knows nothing of this far-away place nor the birth of a special baby. After the caravan disappears over the hills, Befana thought of how much she missed her child who sadly died at a very young age. She changes her mind and wants to visit this special child, because she loves children very much. So she places some baked goods and gifts for the child in a sack, takes her broom to help the new mother clean and races out after the caravan in search of the Baby Jesus. Befana soon is lost. And just as she tired, angels appeared from the bright light, the magic star, in the sky to give flight to Befana on her broom – after all this was a night of miracles. She searched and searched for the Baby Jesus. Befana still searches, even today, even after all these centuries. And so, every year on the eve of the Epiphany, whenever Befana comes to a house where there is a child, she drops in to see if it might be the child she seeks. It never is, but Befana leaves a gift anyway. For Befana has come to realize, over the years, that her searching is not vain, that in a way the Christ Child can be found in all children.
La Befana, like my Nana, was famous for spending her days in the kitchen, cooking and sweeping. On the first Christmas, the Magi stopped by her house, asking directions to Bethlehem. She made them dinner and they told her, “We’re going to see the Christ child, want to come along?” “Impossible,” she replied. “There’s all these dishes to wash and the kitchen to sweep!” So the kings went on their way. Then, as the old woman was sweeping, it hit her: Did those guys say they were going to see Jesus?
So, basically, according to this legend, La Befana is a witch who flies around looking for Jesus on her broom. I like this version more than the ancient Roman version.
Very sad about her child, though! There’s a lot of pathos in this story. Also, directions are really hard. And motivating yourself to leave your house when it is cold and you have just finished eating is also really hard.
Have you noticed we don’t know her full name, though, in much the same way we do not know Santa’s full name?
Do you want to know the best thing about La Befana though?