Just when you think the holidays have come to an end, Christmas a distant memory and New Year's celebrations over and done with, Epiphany comes along, another bank holiday in Italy. Falling on the 6th January, Epiphany marks the day when the three Wise Men (the Magi) brought gifts to the infant Jesus and traditionally closes the Christmas period. But apart from being a religious holiday, the night before Epiphany - twelfth night - is better known to most Italian children as the night when the friendly witch, the Befana arrives on her broomstick bringing sweets and chocolate to all those children who have been good, and coal to those who haven't! Socks are left out for the Befana to fill with the appropriate gift.
The name Befana actually derives from the Greek word Ἐπιφάνεια, Epiphaneia, which means "apparition, or manifestation". A legend explains why the witch-like figure coincides with the religious holiday: the three wise men stopped on their way to Bethlehem to ask an old lady the way. Despite their insistance, the old lady would not come out of her house to accompany them to Bethlehem. Later she regretted her decision, so to try to make up for her error, she prepared a basket of sweet things and set off to find the wise men. Unable to trace them, she left gifts for all the children she met on her way, hoping that one of them was the infant Jesus.
Ever since then, she is said to travel all around the world on twelfth night, delivering sweets to children in order to obtain forgiveness.
The day after Epiphany is usually the first day of the new school term for children in Italy.