La Befana is a kindly old witch who brings children toys on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6.
It has been an Italian tradition since the XIII century and comes from Christian legend rather than popular culture. According to the legend of la Befana, the Three Wise Men stopped at her hut to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and to invite her to join them. She refused, and later a shepherd asked her to join him in paying respect to the Christ Child. Again she refused, and when night fell she saw a great light in the skies. La Befana thought perhaps she should have gone with the Three Wise Men, so she gathered some toys that had belonged to her own child, who had died, and ran to find the kings and the shepherd. But la Befana could not find them or the stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child and on. Since she cannot find him, she flies around the world on a broomstick and delivers candies and presents to children who have been good during the year.
On the night of the 5th of January, Epiphany Eve, Italian children set out a large sock or stocking by the fireplace or at the foot of their bed so that Befana will come and hopefully fill it with sweets and presents – if the child was good – or charcoal (nowadays carbone dolce, a rock candy that looks like coal) – if the child was bad. It is also customary to leave some milk and cookies for Befana to enjoy. Children can write letters to her requesting specific gifts.