The Befana in Venice

Every child of Italian heritage has heard of La Befana, a character in Italian folklore who delivers presents to children throughout Italy. It is believed that the legend of La Befana may have originated in Rome, then spread as a tradition to the rest of Italy. Some believe her name is derived from the word Epiphany, but others say La Befana descended Roman goddess named Strina.

In folklore, Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the 6th of January (the Epiphany) to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. Because she is a good housekeeper, she will sweep the floor before she leaves. The child's family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food for La Befana.She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.

Christian legend has it that La Befana was approached by the magi (the biblical three kings) a few days before Christ's birth. They asked for directions to where the baby Jesus was, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village with the most pleasant home. They invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the baby Jesus. She leaves all the good children toys and candy, while the bad children get coal or bags of ashes.

Venice  Regata della Befana at Arzana..***Agreed Fee's Apply To All Image Use***.Marco Secchi /Xianpix.tel +44 (0)207 1939846.tel +39 02 400 47313. e-mail sales@xianpix.com.www.marcosecchi.com (Marco Secchi)

Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone. La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus' birth, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

Italians believe that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick because she doesn't wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds while parents are distributing candy (or coal) and sweeping the floor on Epiphany Eve.

Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of "coal" in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring), as every child has been at least occasionally bad during the year.

Regata Befana 2012

VENICE, ITALY - JANUARY 06:  Two of the participants sail under Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal dahead of the 34th Befana Regata on January 6, 2012 in Venice, Italy.  In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on the feast of the Epiphany on January 6 in a similar way to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus. (Marco Secchi) VENICE, ITALY - JANUARY 06: Two of the participants sail under Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal ahead of the 34th Befana Regatta on January 6, 2012 in Venice, Italy. In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on the feast of the Epiphany on January 6 in a similar way to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus.

Images from Venice event  and around the world about Epiphany

Befana or Ephiphany in Venice

The Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated January 6 with a national holiday in Italy, and the tradition of La Befana are a big part of Italian Christmas celebrations. Epiphany commemorates the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for Baby Jesus. The traditional Christmas holiday season in Italy lasts through Epiphany. On Venice’s Grand Canal, at 11 c'clock men dressed as old witches – ‘befane’ in Italian – race towards the Rialto Bridge, standing up as they row Venetian style. This event takes place every year in January in celebration of Epiphany.

VENICE, ITALY - JANUARY 06: A  participant of the Befana Regata is seen rowing on the Canal Grande on January 6, 2011 in Venice, Italy.  In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany January 6 iin a similar way to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus (Marco Secchi/Getty Images)

Best places to watch the race: Rialto but you must get there quite early, Riva del Vin or just around Rialto Mercato.

Christmas in Venice

While preparation are taking place in Venice and the Lagoon for Christmas here are few tips:A wonderful way to spend Christmas Eve is to attend midnight mass at St. Mark's Basilica. But remember, midnight mass starts at 10:30 p.m. and you should get there early to get a seat (no tickets are needed). Try to enter through the north entrance and not the west entrance often used by tourists.

VENICE, ITALY - DECEMBER 08:  Three gondoliers chat near a Christmas decorated Rialto Bridge on December 8, 2011 in Venice, Italy. HOW TO LICENCE THIS PICTURE: please contact us via e-mail at sales@xianpix.com or call our offices in London   +44 (0)207 1939846 for prices and terms of copyright. First Use Only ,Editorial Use Only, All repros payable, No Archiving.© MARCO SECCHI (Marco Secchi)

Venice's main Christmas market is at Campo San Stefano and ends on Christmas Eve. I have been told that is going to open also this year....at today there is no trace of it! There is a small market and an ice rink in Cpo San Polo

Even though December 26th is a national holiday (St. Stephen's Day), most of Venice's museums and sites will be open.

Several Venice restaurants are closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and even on the 23rd and 26th. Most hotel restaurants and Harry's Bar are open. Be sure to do your homework and make reservations ahead of time for Christmas meals. We hear Caffe Quadri and the restaurant - Piazza San Marco's famous cafe - is open on Christmas Day. Good place for Christmas breakfast and coffee!

Remember that the vaparetto schedule changes on major holidays. Check the signs posted on the platforms for schedule information.

Each year on December 26, the Frari Church in San Polo (in the Campo dei Frari) offers a free concert at 4:00 p.m. The church is filled with magnificent art, including Titian's Assumption of the Virgin, Canova's Tomb and a carved monk's chair from 1468.

For an incredible seafood dinner and a warm celebration at midnight, go to Trattoria Antiche Carampane on New Year's Eve. (San Polo 1911; (39) 041 524-0165) The price for dinner runs about £70 per person. No matter where you go that night, you must make reservations.

Another restaurant recommendation: Antica Trattoria Poste Vecie (Rialto Pescheria Venezia; (39-041-721-1822) is open on Christmas Day and New Year's Day. This restaurant also has excellent fish and a larger menu as well. The soups and Venetian-style calf's liver are terrific. Fireplaces keep the restaurant warm on cold nights.

If you're in Venice on January 6, don't miss the Befana races. Men clad in long skirts, wigs and babushkas climb into boats for races on the Grand Canal. The best views are from the Rialto Bridge.