La Befana is known all over throughout history as a wise and magical woman who arrives flying on a broom or sometimes even on a donkey bringing gifts to the children, leaving figs, dates, nuts, and candy on the eve of the Epiphany.
Her principal function is that of reaffirming the bond between family and the ancestors through the exchange of gifts.
(Wikipedia) A popular belief is that her/the name Befana derives from the Feast of Epiphany or in Italian, "La Festa dell'Epifania (Epiphany in English) is a Latin word with Greek origins. Epiphany means either the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) or 'manifestation (of the divinity).
There is evidence to suggest that Befana is descended from the Sabine/Roman goddess named Strina. In the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John J. Blunt (John Murray, 1823), the author says:
"This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year's gifts, "Strenae', from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana. Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character".
Judika Illes wrote, "Befana may predate Christianity and may originally be a goddess of ancestral spriits, forest, and the passage of time. Some identify this wandering, nocturnal crone with Hekate.
In Roman mythology, Strenua or Strenia was the goddess of strength and endurance. She was originally a Sabine goddess. She had a temple on the Via Sacra.
In the mythical tradition, the Befana arriving on a broom or even a donkey testifies to her association with plants and animals which in ancient times had a scared value. In mythology the branch is home to the spirit of the ancestor, which is why it has assumed the magical function of flight and could have a role of evocation as well as distancing from the spirit. These actions were conceived as a voyage, a flight from a far-away kingdom.
Besides the link with the cult of the hearth the Befana personifies a close link to fire itself, whether astral (brought from the stars, appearing as a meteor) or earthly (for example on the eve of the Befana holiday bonfires are lit to burn her figure). This action is not meant so much as to exorcise a negative entity, as to re-accompany at the end of the big holiday the spirit of the ancestors to the kingdom beyond the tomb through the symbolism of the ascending fire.
The name Befana is derived from the word epifania, this being the Italian name for their religious festival. The Epiphany holiday includes purifying rites and benedictions with water. The water being prepared on the eve of Epiphany has a sacred and warding -off-evil-spirits value and is used in critical moments of family life. In Abruzzo, Italy, it is call "Water of the Boffe".
Figures of the Kings Magi, in the historical tradition, were priests of scared fire. The Magi symbolized the three worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense, (frankincense) and myrrh from beyond the grave. The three substances can be linked to each of the three sacred fires of Vedica: India, Avestica, Persia. This making it possible through fire and gifts to establish a connection between the Magi and the figure of the Befana in the expectation of the holiday of January 6th.
In anthropology the Epiphany, the last festivity of the Christmas period, is considered a celebration of renewal, announcing the coming of the new season. In the peasant culture that was the moment when forecasts and predictions on the future were drawn, and people used to sit around the fireplace telling fantastic tales. On that magical night our great- grandparents used to look into the future interpreting natural phenomena.
The Befana is also related to the mysterious rites of the Celtic peoples once inhabiting the whole Pianura Padana and part of the Alps, when wicker puppets were set on fire in honor of ancient gods. The witch, the woman magician (the priestess of the ancient Celtic culture that knew the secrets of nature) took the form of the Befana. The "coal" that she would leave to the nasty children was actually also a symbol of fertility connected to the scared bonfires and the "ceppo".
The other almost universal symbol accompanying the lady, the broom, that clearly resembles a magic wand, is also connected to the tree and the nature rituals of the Celts in their forests. In the pre-Christian calendar solstice rites used to celebrate the cycle of the sun, and were slowly merged with the cycle of the life of man and the generations, following one another. This eternal cycle was represented by symbols to exorcise anxiety. In many cultures the relations between grown-ups and children is based on the observance of rules achieved through the fear of punishments and expectations of reward. To this family of figures belong the ogre and witch, transformed into the more positive and pedagogical figures of Santa Claus and the Befana.
The Befana best known as the "the giver of gifts", the good witch who arrives on a broom bringing gifts to childen has been around throughout history. However connected to Biblical times with King Herod, in mythology, among the Italians, Celtics or Pagans. In Norway, Palestine, Italy or in Russia known as the Babushka. Whether she be known as a fairy, a goddess, a priestess and many other entities, names, in places near or far, you can find that there is an abundance of sources to research about La Befana which is really quite interesting.