Celebrating the Epiphany in Italy with La Befana

Tomorrow, January 6 is the Epiphany, a date commonly celebrated in the Catholic church and cherished throughout Italy. If you aren’t sure what the Epiphany is, you can read up on it here. But please come back.

I grew up in a large Catholic family in Texas and have never celebrated the Epiphany. In fact, I was usually back in school by the time this post-Christmas holiday rolled around.

But it is quite different for Italians.

See this little witch here?

Well … she has something to do with how Italians celebrate the Epiphany. I wrote a blog post two years ago – when I first started My Bella Vita – about the legend of La Befana.

I’ve included part of it for you here today.

La Befana is one of Italy’s oldest and most celebrated legends. Each year on January 6 Italian children awaken to see if La Befana visited to their house. This day marks the day the three Wise Men arrived at Jesus’ manger. Apparently, over the years this has been a more celebrated holiday for the children of Italy than even Christmas.

According to the legend, the three Wise Men were searching for the Christ child when they decided to stop and ask for directions. (Now – I have a problem with this part of the story for 2 reasons – 1) why didn’t they keep following the star, and 2) men NEVER stop and ask for directions, especially if there were three of them … but anyway, along with the story!)

Upon knocking on the door of a small house, an old woman holding a broom opened the door slightly to see who was there. Standing at her doorstep were three colorfully dressed men who were in need of directions to find the Christ child. The old woman didn’t know who they were looking for, and could not provide them with directions. Prior to the three men leaving they asked the old woman to join them on their journey. (Sure, three colorfully dressed men are going to ask an old raggedly witch on a broom to join them??)

The old woman declined saying she had too much housework to do. However, after they left she felt as though she had made a mistake and tried to catch up with the men. After hours of searching she could not find them. Thinking of the missed opportunity, the old woman stopped every child to give them a small treat in hopes that one was the Christ child. Each year on the eve of the Epiphany she sets out looking for the baby Jesus. She stops at each child’s house to leave those who were good treats and those who were bad a lump of coal.

Have you ever celebrated the Epiphany? If so, how? Does Santa bring your stocking on Christmas Eve or does La Befana bring it on January 6?

8 Responses
  1. Hi Cherrye! Welcome back to Italy. Hope you had a great Christmas and New Year.

    Our little one has already got one Befana sock lined up! And it is really like a second Christmas for children here in Italy – Santa holds a few goodies back for the 6 January! 😉

    I got in trouble this Christmas because I did not get any presents for my son – so he says! Only Santa brought him goodies, he maintains, not me!

    It’s tough being a dad at times!

    All the best and Happy New Year!

    That is SO funny, Alex. My parents always saved a few gifts “from them” and I wondered why everyone said Christmas was so expensive. You better shape up next year!! LOL
    Alex’s last blog post..New Year, New Media – GlobalPost

  2. Molly V

    Cherrye! Hope you had a wonderful holiday! I never knew either why we sang Christmas carols at church for so long after Christmas. In the US, the Feast of the Epiphany mass is celebrated on Sunday, not on the 6th. The 6th is the “Twelfth Night”, hence the 12 days of Christmas. But most importantly down here is Southeast Texas, it is the kickoff to the Mardi Gras season! So I guess you could say I HAVE celebrated the epiphany…
    Love ya!
    I always wondered about the songs and leaving the tree up in church, too. Thanks for your comment, Molly! I actually dreamed about you a few days ago … great minds, eh??

  3. Sierra

    Jan 6th was a celebration for me growing up as my paternal side is Ukrainian. So lucky me, I had two Christmases! Ukrainian Christmas includes a twelve course of meatless dishes. Heavy on the cream and carbs of course! We don’t celebrate it anymore as our families are spread out so far apart but I still look upon the day fondly.
    12 courses?? And I thought Italians ate a lot! Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  4. maryann

    I hope my witch friend brings you something nice 😉
    You know, that I think of it, SHE didn’t bring me anything … guess I wasn’t so good this year!
    maryann’s last blog post..Cartellate

  5. Thanks! It’s my first Epiphany in Italia and I’ve been wondering what’s with all witches and their brooms popping up everywhere. Have a good holiday!
    Glad I could help. It is a shock if you have never heard of it, isn’t it? Hope your holiday was great, too!

  6. Hi – Just found your site and am enjoying it. I posted a piece on La Befana on mine, including a photo of me dressed as La Befana. I surprised my weekly Italian chit-chat group and they had no idea who was behind the mask for at least five minutes. It was so much fun.
    What fun!! I’ll go now and check out your post. I think the Befana is such a fun tradition!
    Ciaochowlinda’s last blog post..Nutella Chocolate Rice Pudding

  7. karen

    My husband was adopted from Italy. We celebrate the important holidays from my side of the family. He really doesnt know much about his background. Just found the story of La Befana. I think it would be wonderful way to include his past and mix it in with his childrens future. We have a 8 yr old and a 3 yr old. I can’t wait to tell them the story. Thanks. Any information you can pass on will be greatly appreciated.

    I’m so glad you liked this post. Search through the archives, there is quite a bit on Christmas in Calabria!

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