The feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, has always been here in Italy a day charged with feelings and conflicting emotions: on one hand it marks the end of the Christmas season and all the joyful and carefree moments spent in the company of friends and family in front of a good homemade panettone or a glass of Italian sparkling wine; on the other it embodies one of the most anticipated and cherished days by all children as they unquestionably become the main characters of the day. It is the day of gifts and surprises, exciting and unforgettable moments that every child looks forward to throughout the year, a day they are led to euphoria and a boundless joy.
Founded as a religious feast of the Catholic faith – we remember on this day the visit of the Magi Kings to the Christ Child at the cove in Bethlehem and the homage they paid with gifts such as gold, frankincense and myrrh – the Epiphany has become a day of celebration for all children who, since the night before, await with eagerness and anticipation the arrival of the Befana.
But who is La Befana?
In the collective imagination, she is a rather ugly old woman, with an angular face, shabbily dressed and with broken shoes, but with a tender heart, riding her flying broom, wandering from house to house, from village to village and from town to town bringing gifts to all good children, leaving ash and coal to the bad and restless ones. Apparently, La Befana is a magnanimous and understanding grandmother, and therefore, like all grandmothers, even forgives the most mischievous children, leaving them a small gift, maybe a candy or treat, for consistency, reminiscent of a piece of coal, made with sugar and essence of licorice (hence the grey color which makes it look like coal).
How do the children prepare for the arrival of Befana?
There are many Italian traditions connected to the awaiting of Befana. Children with a fireplace at home hang the stockings of Befana (huge socks made of cotton or red velvet with Christmas decorations) on the fireplace and await with anticipation and curiosity that, in the darkness and silence of the night as if by magic, the little old lady comes into the house sliding down the chimney and deposits all her gifts in the doorway, filling the hung stockings with candy and chocolate.
Those who do not have a fireplace in the home, usually hang stockings on the Christmas tree or rest them on the sofa, in the hope that the Befana will see them and fill with gifts.
Some children then, are fortunate enough to physically see La Befana (it is always a grandmother or an old aunt masked and made ugly for the occasion) who knocks on the door and, almost without greeting any family members, enters with a bowed head into the living room and with awkwardness and haste opens her huge burlap bag, leaving some gifts under the tree and then, before going out, gives one last look to the children, frightened by the strange figure and, smiling, she leaves, resting upon her old broom.
Among all, these are the most envied kids because they have had the privilege to physically meet Befana and maybe to touch her; an experience that every child would like to have, if only to give substance to a dream. That’s why, on the night between 5 and 6 January, the famous “night of the Epiphany”, almost every child has a hard time getting to sleep and the slightest noise in the night is enough to startle and awaken them out of bed to spy from afar to perceive even a feeble human presence attributable to Befana.
How do we celebrate the Epiphany in Italy? And in the Marche? What are the characteristic events which take place in the streets on the occasion of this holiday?
All children in Italy, on the day of Epiphany, get up early and are immediately lively and excited. Oddly enough, just barely awoken, they are quite happy and excited because they know so many beautiful gifts await them under the tree or in the fireplace. They do not eat breakfast or get dressed but, still in pajamas, they run into the living room and, with a beating heart, began to unwrap their gifts amid the pretend surprise looks and pleasure of their parents. Some children, more than others, are satisfied with their gifts but, all, alike, are happy.
The feast, started in the home, often continues at the home of grandparents and aunts and uncles as La Befana may also leave gifts to the homes of relatives and friends. The sumptuous lunch that is prepared to worthily celebrate the last day of the Christmas season – Italy is world famous for good food and abundance of courses during the long Christmas lunches – takes a back seat as the main subject of the day is the arrival of Befana and the gifts that she brought.
After lunch, we leave to go in the center which, in main Italian cities, are set up in honor of the Epiphany shows and celebrations, with songs and dance dedicated primarily to children.
Historical reenactments are characteristic in honor of the Epiphany which take place in many areas of the Marche region, from Pesaro to Ascoli Piceno, with folklore performances which show Befana flying down on the cheering crowd from high steeples and city towers. Using her magic broom, Befana flies over the square throwing around huge handfuls of candy and sweets that every child is anxious to collect, as if it were a precious gift to jealously preserve. At the time of the descent of Befana from the tower the children, up to that moment boisterous and playful, suddenly fall silent in amazement, and with incredulous admiration follow with their eyes every single move and gesture of the sweet old lady, as if they themselves were taking part in the first person in flight. In the moment when La Befana arrives on the ground, everyone applauds and the celebration begins with music and entertainment for young and old. In fact, while the children run and play together, adults can enjoy the afternoon by tasting some of the regional sweet specialties of the Marche tradition, such as the frustingo (a typical delicacy of Ascolano made with dried fruit, chocolate and dessert wine), chocolate salami, the traditional panettone or pandoro, offered by various municipal associations organizers of the festival, and warming up with a good mulled wine (hot drink made with red wine, sugar and aromatic spices).
And you, do you celebrate the Epiphany? If yes, how do you celebrate? What are the typical traditions in your country related to this festivity?