The Christmas celebrations in Italy last for nearly a full month from December 8th to January 6th. It begins with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a national holiday. To mark the occasion the Christmas decorations are put up, including the tree and the very important nativity crib. The festivities then continue all of the way through until January 6th, the feast day of Epiphany. It is a month for religious devotion and spending time with the family. In the upper Northern regions of the country, gift-giving begins even earlier on December 6th when St. Nicholas visits.
In fact, there are three other times when presents are traditionally exchanged; one of which is the visit from la Befana (translated as the good witch). On January 6th, she fills the stockings of children all over Italy with sweets for those on the nice list and coal for those who have misbehaved. The story goes that she even sweeps the floor before she leaves – because of course she is such as good housekeeper, but also possibly to sweep away the problems of the previous year. It was her housework that originally kept her from accompanying the three kings on their search for the baby Jesus. When she realised that this was a mistake, she went on a quest to find him herself with her bag filled with gifts. Nowadays, she is an icon of Italian Christmas.