The Feast of the Epiphany and Italy’s Befana


The Christmas season may be over in America, but the religious rituals and revelry continue in Italy.

By: Francesa Montillo, ISDA Contributor

Drive down any neighborhood in the U.S. a few days after Christmas, and you’re likely to see Christmas trees at the curb, ready to be picked up by the local garbage men. I’ve seen my share with tinsel or fake snow still on them. For many, Dec. 26 is the day to un-decorate, and remove Christmas from your home. Having been raised in Italy, where the season is celebrated until Jan. 6, this is a sad sight for me to see.

Jan. 6, which is exactly 12 days after Christmas, is when Italians and all Catholics celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. This is the real last day of the Christmas season. If we want to get technical, the Christmas season actually starts on Christmas Day, and lasts until the Epiphany. The days prior to Christmas are actually part of the advent.

While Italians conjure up images of a friendly witch on a broom delivering small gifts to well-behaved children; the Epiphany, of course, has a much deeper, religious meaning.

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The Parade of the Epiphany in Florence, Tuscany. (Credit: iStock, Darla Trevilofa)

According to the Gregorian calendar, Jan. 6 marks the day the Three Wise Men, also known as the Magi, find the newly born baby Jesus after a days-long, starlit search. The epiphany is also believed to be Jesus’ Baptism day, which occurred some 30 years after his birth. The word itself is of Greek origin and means “manifestation” or “to show or display” to an audience. According to the Catholic Church, the Epiphany rejoices the adoration of Jesus by the visiting Wise Men.

So where and how does the Befana, the friendly witch delivering goodies to all well-behaved Italian children, actually come into play?

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An image of the historical recreation of the “Procession of the Magi” in Florence, Tuscany. (Credit: iStock, Zummolo)
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The Three Wise Men on horseback bringing gifts–gold, incense, myrrh–to the newborn child Jesus, during the historical recreation of the “Procession of the Magi” to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. (Credit: iStock, Zummolo)

Christian folklore tells us that the Three Wise Men approached a friendly older woman and asked her to help them find Jesus. She did not know where he was, but since they were in for a long journey, she welcomed them in for the night so they could rest. As she kept a very clean home, always sweeping and tidying up, she was more than able to welcome in some guests.

The next day, they continued on their journey and invited the kind woman to join them in finding the newly born King. She turned them down, saying far too much housework would keep her away from her responsibilities. She later changed her mind, however, and set out to find the Magi and Jesus. She was unable to find them, so to this day, every year she goes out on her broom, looking for the little baby. She enters every home with the hope of finding him, and when she doesn’t, she leaves behind small toys or candy for the children she does find.

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In Parma, a group of women dress as Befane during the town parade. (Credit: iStock, Glorez)
​Jan. 6 really is the end of the Christmas season in Italy. The feast day of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) opens the Christmas season, and the feast of the Epiphany closes it, much to the dismay of children all over, who have received batches of presents from Babbo Natale, and La Befana.
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When children and adults alike think of the Befana, it’s typically an image such as this, a friendly old woman on a broom. (Credit: iStock by Corrado Baratta)
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