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Celebrating the Epiphany in Italy and the Legend of la Befana

On January 6th, Italians celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany with a national public holiday. Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas period and commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus to the Magi, or three wise men.

The celebration of the Epiphany began in the Eastern Church and included a celebration of Christ’s birth. However, by the 4th century AD., the various calendar reforms had moved the birth of Christ to December 25th and the church in Rome began celebrating January 6th as Epiphany.

This the twelfth day of Christmas and the traditional Christmas holiday season in Italy lasts through Epiphany. All Schools and businesses will be closed, but most stores will remain open.

The tradition of La Befana

January 6th is also known as La Befana. In Italian folklore, Befana is an old soot-covered woman or witch who delivers presents to Italian children on the night before La Befana (Epiphany Eve).

The story goes that on their way to see the infant Jesus, the Magi stopped to ask Befana for directions and asked her to join them. She initially refused, but later had a change of heart and tried to find the manger. She was unable to find the baby Jesus and gave the gifts she had brought to other children. To this day, she travels on her broomstick every year on January 5th looking for the manger and giving her presents to any Italian child who leaves out a shoe or hangs up a stocking on Epiphany Eve. This legend arose in the 13th century and for a long time La Befana was a tradition confined to Rome and the surrounding regions, but this festival has become popular across all of Italy in the last hundred years.

It wouldn’t be a proper Italian festival without an excuse to bake some yummy food and La Befana is no exception. Special treats on La Befana include sweet coal, small cookies called befanini and Befana cake – a cake with a large dried bean inside. Whoever gets the bean in their slice is king (or queen) for the day.