Needless to say, we inherited the character of the Befana from the Romans. During the twelve nights following the winter solstice, the Romans dedicated themselves to celebrations for the birth of nature, during which mysterious female figures, guided by Diana, flew over the fields to make them more fertile. Another hypothesis has it that the flying women were guided by Sàtia, a minor divinity linked to satiety (which perhaps they hoped to have during the winter!).
According to some theories, the name should come from the lexical corruption of epifáneiameaning “manifestation” in Greek, which later became biphanìa and befanìa.
Manifestation refers to an ancient Christian tradition of the second century AD where it was believed that God became incarnate, therefore manifested, in Jesus on the day of his baptism and not on the day of his birth.
Instead, the rags the old rags worn by the Befana refer to the worn-out, old year.
In parts of Austria and Germany, just twelve days after Christmas, “Perchta” or “Berchta” is celebrated, also dressed in rags, but here it symbolizes the poor and ungenerous winter nature.
While the broom would be a symbol of purification, cleansing, and rebirth.
The use of hanging the stocking derives from the shape that the full and worn-out sacks take on after being hung, they are in fact so deformed as to look like big socks. The weight, in this case, would be due to the gifts that the Befana brings. This tradition could derive from the Strenia Roman deity, a symbol of the new year, celebrated with the traditional exchange of gifts (“strenne”) during the Saturnalia which took place between 17 and 23 December in honor of the god Saturn and preceded the day of the Sol Invictus (feast of the winter solstice “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti“or “Day of birth of the Sun never defeated”).
Christianity condemned pagan rites, accusing them of being influenced by Satan, therefore, given its origins, the Epiphany was associated with the figure of a witch and then Halloween took its toll.
Moreover, the Church tried to Christianize the feast by associating the old woman with the Magi. In particular, it is said that the Magi met the old woman and tried to convince her to go with them to visit the Baby Jesus, but she refused. Since then, the Befana would wander from house to house delivering gifts to other children, hoping to atone for her guilt.