From the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John J. Blunt (John Murray, 1823):
"This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year's gifts, 'Strenae,' from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character."From the book Domestic Life in Palestine, by Mary E. Rogers (Poe & Hitchcock, 1865)::
"An 'Essay on the Fine Arts,' by E. L. Tarbuck, led me to believe that this custom is a relic of pagan worship, and that the word "Bastrina" refers to the offerings which used to be made to the goddess Strenia. We could hardly expect that the pagans who embraced Christianity could altogether abandon their former creeds and customs. Macaulay says, "Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity; the rites of the Pantheon passed into her 'worship, and the subtilties of the Academy into her creed.' Many pagan customs were adopted by the new Church. T. Hope, in his 'Essay on Architecture,' says: 'The Saturnalia were continued in the Carnival, and the festival with offerings to the goddess Strenia was continued in that of the New Year…'"
From The Roman Forum: a topographical study:
"The Roman antiquaries inform us that the term Sacred Way is applicable to a road leading from the Sacellum (chapel) of the Goddess Strenia, in or near the Carinae, to the Capitoline citadel..."Christmas and epiphany gifts in Italy are still called strenae .
Here we have a Sabine Goddess (remember il rapimento delle sabine?) who is honored at the start of the year with gifts of sweets and boughs from Her sacred grove and with money. It's not a leap to surmise Her worship was continued as La Befana, or as the personification of La Epifania.
This Friday I'll be exchanging strenae with Family, making a donation of money in Her name, donating shoes and coats, and sharing the vegan struffles I'm making for the occasion!