The Epiphany tradition in Italy

by Maria Lamkin

January 2000


As we have seen in the previous articles, Babbo Natale brings some gifts at Christmas following traditions that started in Italy soon after WWII. Ever since, however, it has been the Befana who has brought most of the other gifts (and mostly to children) on the day of Epiphany. This term comes from ancient Greek and means “manifestation (or “appearance”) of a supernatural being or of a divinity”, or “a moment of revelation”. Indeed this holiday commemorates Baby Jesus’ manifestation to the three Magi which occurred on January 6th. The term “Befana”, on the other hand, is of unknown origin and may be said to be a popular derivation (through various linguistic routes) of the term that indicates this holiday.

The origin of the tradition is veiled in mystery and in all likelihood this poetic figure goes back to country legends of pre-Christian times. Tradition depicts her as a benevolent and curved old woman with a hooked nose and a pointed chin. During the night between January 5th and January 6th she flies through the skies riding a broom and carrying over her shoulders a sack full of presents. Once she enters a house she leaves a lot of gifts and candies in the stockings of good children, reserving some coal (hard sugar with black food coloring) for bad children, who hopefully will learn a lesson for the following year.

Nowadays there are still many children who, believing in the good old lady, hang one or two stockings on the evening of the Eve. On the next morning they will find them filled with candy, chocolate, and gifts of all kinds. As a sign of welcome to the nice old lady some people, especially in the South, lay on the table a small meal which consists of a sausage and broccoli and which is accompanied by a glass of wine (the question is, How can she keep riding her broom if she gets drunk? ).

Befana also exists in various other popular traditions. For instance in the evening of January 5th a puppet representing "The Old Woman" (symbolizing the bareness of winter) is burnt in the main square of some small centers to bode a fertile spring.

There was a time, over twenty years ago, when the Italian government declared that Epiphany was no longer a holiday. In all of this nation’s history that was the only occasion on which the uproar from Italian "children" (both old and young!) was widespread and unanimous. As a consequence the decree had to be overturned, which gave back to this holiday all of its fascination.

This celebration ends the Christmas season; as the saying goes, "Epifania tutte le feste porta via"; or, "Epiphany takes away all the festivities". Children return to school on January 7th … or try to spend an extra day at home to enjoy themselves with all their new toys.

All the Best Wishes and Greetings until the next Christmas Season!

Maria Lamkin can be reached at lamkin@uni.net