The Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated January 6 with a national holiday in Italy, and the tradition of La Befana are a big part of Italian Christmas celebrations.
Epiphany commemorates the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts for Baby Jesus. The traditional Christmas holiday season in Italy lasts through Epiphany.
Italy's traditional celebration includes the tale of a witch known as La Befana who arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5 and fills the stockings with toys and sweets for the good children and lumps of coal for the bad ones.
According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. Then a shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died. She got lost and never found the manger.
Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year on the 11th night, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus. Children hang their stockings on the evening of January 5 awaiting the visit of La Befana.
The origins of La Befana may actually go back farther, to the Roman's pagan festival of Saturnalia, a one or two week festival starting just before the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their augers read by an old crone. Many pagan traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations when Christianity became main stream. La Befana was a good substitute for the old woman who read the augers. The saying augur originated with this practice, too, as it was common to wish someone good augers.
La Befana Festivals
The town of Urbania, in Le Marche region, holds a 4-day festival for La Befana from January 2-6. Children can meet La Befana in La Casa della Befana. This is one of the biggest celebrations for La Befana in Italy.
The Befane races, Regatta delle Bafane, are held in Venice on January 6. Men dressed as La Befana race in boats on the Grand Canal.
Epiphany Processions and Living Nativities
In Vatican City, following another Epiphany tradition, a procession of hundreds of people in medieval costumes walk along the wide avenue leading up to the Vatican, carrying symbolic gifts for the Pope. The Pope says a morning mass in St Peter's Basilica to commemorate the visit of the Wise Men bearing gifts for Jesus.
Rivisondoli, in the Abruzzo region (Abruzzo map), has a reenactment of the arrival of the 3 kings on January 5 with hundreds of costumed participants.
Milan has an Epiphany Parade of the Three Kings from the Duomo to the church of Sant'Eustorgio on January 6.
Many towns and villages in Italy have similiar processions, although not as elaborate, ending with a living nativity scene, presepe vivente, where costumed people act out the parts of the nativity. Living nativities, presepi viventi, are often presented December 24-26 and repeated for Epiphany.