The Bible tells us two versions of the Christmas story. One is the familiar version from St. Luke, which almost everyone knows from its being quoted by Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas. This contains the birth of Jesus, Mary's laying the Christ child in the manger, the angels and the shepherds.
It is from St. Matthew that the other familiar part of the story comes to pass. Here are the Wise Men (the "Magi," which in those days meant "magicians" or more probably astrologers who studied the stars) who follow the star, who are detoured by King Herod, who finally find the Christ child, and who "depart home in a different direction" without giving information to the king.
From these two pieces of scripture we get the image that is in every nativity set, and even in things like Rankin-Bass' Little Drummer Boy: the shepherds and the "Kings" all at the stable at once, the learned visitors offering gifts while sheep mill about. But the Bible doesn't even make mention of a stable, just a manger, no ox, no ass (these come from another Biblical passage) and there is no indication that the two different groups of worshipers met. Indeed, St. Matthew even mentions that the Magi have come to a house to meet the child. Nor does the Bible mention how many Wise Men—three are listed only because of the three symbolic gifts they bring: gold for kingship, frankincense for priesthood, and myrrh for death. And they are certainly not stated to be Kings.
Nevertheless, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Wise Men to the young Jesus, and is one of the reasons gifts are given at Christmas. In some cultures, Christmas is strictly a religious observance, and gifts are given only at Epiphany, to commemorate the event, especially in Spanish-speaking countries. However, with the popularization of Christmas as a gift-giving holiday, there are often now two gift-giving days.
The Italians and the Russians have another character who figures in Epiphany gift giving. The story has several versions, but the basic one is that the Wise Men stop enroute to ask an old woman for directions, telling her of the great miracle. She is busy cleaning house and does not want to bother with them. In some versions she is quite brusque with them. Later, she feels badly about having treated them so shabbily, and is also curious about the Christ child. So she gathers gifts for the baby and follows the Magi. However, she never finds them, and goes from house to house, looking for the miraculous child. Not finding Him, she still leaves a gift behind for each child in the house.
In Italy this old woman, often referred to as a "strega" (witch), is called La Befana (Befana being a version of "Epiphania"). In Russia she is known as Baboushka.
Well, I've felt a bit like La Befana all day! I've been cleaning for our party, starting downstairs. The library had been vacuumed recently, but I gave it another going over, and then cleaned the bathroom. This is just in case the younger folks at the party get bored with us old geezers comparing how many days we have till retirement (or openly envying Anne and Betty, who have already retired) and wish to retire themselves, to play a game or just shoot the breeze. I also vacuumed the downstairs hall and the stairs to the foyer, then got the cheap little Cyberhome DVD we have in the spare room going with the television in case the girls want to watch a DVD. From there I cleaned the bedrooms, and also finished cleaning the hall bathroom, which is the company bathroom. Willow had her bath last night (a half-hour task that is more exhausting than vacuuming) and I had to collect the hair left around the drain screen and then tackle the potty. Later vacuumed the dining room and part of the living room, put the seat cover back on James' Laz-Y-Boy (Willow sleeps in it and it was well-furred), then took a deep breath and vacuumed the foyer (again) and the rest of the stairs. Still have to clean off the sofa and the coffee table, but that pretty much involves putting all the magazines in a crate and sticking them in the bedroom. :-)