Many Christians around the world annually celebrate Epiphany or Three King’s Day on January 6. It is a public holiday in many countries and marks two events in Jesus Christ’s life, according to the Christian Bible. The first event was when the three wise men, or kings, visited infant Jesus. The second event was when St John the Baptist baptized Jesus. In Italy there is another event celebrated on this day: the arrival of La Befana. Let’s look at these celebrations.
Three Kings Day (Día de los Reyes), also known as Epiphany, is a Christian celebration that marks the official 12th day of Christmas and concludes the Christmas season. Epiphany means “manifestation” and commemorates the Biblical story of the three kings who came to Bethlehem twelve days after Christmas by following the comet with gifts for the baby Jesus. According to the Biblical story, the Three Kings (also called wise men or magi)—named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar—followed the Star of Bethlehem to find the birthplace of Baby Jesus. They presented the baby with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Among Orthodox or Eastern Christians, January 6th is known as the Epiphany, the day in which Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.
Epiphany around the world
The holiday is widely celebrated in the Hispanic community with traditions that include a Rosca de Reyes (“King’s Cake”) and gifts for children. Many consider this day more important than Christmas. In many Latin American countries, it is the three wise men and not Santa Claus who bring gifts for children. Children write letters to the wise men telling them how good they were and what gifts they want.
In Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and much of Latin America, January 6th is celebrated as Three King’s Day, commemorating the visit by Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar of the baby Jesus.
In France Le Jour des Rois (the Day of Kings), sometimes called the Fête des Rois, is celebrated with parties for children and adults. The galette des rois, or “cake of kings”, highlights these celebrations. This cake is round and flat, cut into the pantry, covered with a white napkin and carried into a dining room.
In the south of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, Drie koningen features children caroling from door to door, dressed up as the Three Kings.
Driekoningen is not a widespread holiday in the Netherlands anymore but it used to be one of the most celebrated ones. The famous painter Jan Steen reflected this festive day in numerous works.
Especially in the Southern part of the Netherlands, people prepare the Dutch Koningenbrood, or Kings’ bread, known in France as la galette du roi or Dreikönigskuchen in German speaking countries. The Koningsbrood is a cake of puff pastry, prepared with a bean, coin or little figure (king) hidden inside. Whoever finds it is the king or queen for the day.
Another tradition in the Low Countries and some other places in Europe is to open up doors and windows to let good luck in for the coming year. Here are some proverbs about this day:
Zet met Driekoningen ramen en deuren open, want wind met Driekoningen brengt zegen. (Open the windows and doors on Three Kings’ Day, because with the wind (this day) brings blessings)
Als het op Dertiendag (13e dag na kerst = Driekoningen) vriest, vriest het zes/dertien weken lang. (If it freezes on the Thirteenth’ day (13 days after Christmas), it will freeze six/thirteen weeks)
Als Driekoningen is in het land, komt de vorst in ‘t vaderland. (When it’s Three Kings’ Day, the frost will come in the fatherland)
Children in Spain fill their shoes with straw or grain for the three kings’ horses to eat and place them on balconies or by the front door on Epiphany Eve. The next day they find cookies, sweets or gifts in their place. The “three kings” make an entry in many cities in Spain on Epiphany Eve, accompanied by military bands and drummers in medieval dress. Also traditional is preparing Rosca bread with a little trinket — sometimes a baby Jesus — baked inside. Whoever finds the prize is believed to be blessed with a fortunate year.
Epiphany is a public holiday in countries such as Austria, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, Ethiopia (but on different date that varies annually), parts of Germany, Greece, Italy, Slovakia, Spain, and Uruguay. Epiphany is not a public holiday but it is celebrated in the Netherlands as well.
Traditional Christmas celebrations in Italy include the tale of La Befana, a beloved witch who flies in on her broom on the night of January 5th, Epiphany Eve, to fill children’s stockings. In Italian folklore, La Befana is a witch who brings good children treats on the morning of the Epiphany, January 6. She gives toys and sweet treats to children who behaved that year and coal to those who did not!
The witch has been in the Italian tradition at least since the eighth century, as part of the Epiphany. In Italy, the Epiphany marks the official end of the Christmas season, commemorating the day when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts.
According to one telling of the legend, the Three Wise Men stopped to ask an old woman for directions to Bethlehem. Although she did not know the way, she provided them with shelter and she charitably hosted them for an evening in her humble but cozy cottage; the next morning, they invited her to accompany them to Bethlehem. Busy cleaning her home, La Befana declined. And then 2 versions:
1. She declined, but always regretted her decision. And repares by bringing gifts to children.
2. After declining, she had second thoughts and later decided to follow them. She quickly filled a basket with gifts for the baby Jesus and set off alone. Although she followed the same star, she was unable to find the manger before the Wise Men did on January 6, the Epiphany. Now, every year on Epiphany Eve, she flies around delivering gifts to children.
La Befana is an old woman, a little shabby, but very hardworking and much loved by children, although her appearance is not so reassuring. She travels on a broom and, in the night between 5th and 6th January, she is on the go to bring gifts, sweets in particular, to good children and coal for those less good. La Befana enters a home just like Santa Klaus: through the chimney! She is loved as much as Father Christmas, but unlike the elderly bearded gentleman, she is much less famous, particularly outside Italy. In Italy she is known by everyone as the Befana: “la Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte”(“The Befana comes by night with her broken shoes”), says an old adage.
In Italy every year, the occasion is celebrated with living nativity scenes, a great procession through the city center, and the arrival of La Befana.
La Befana is celebrated in different ways according to the different regions. In some traditions, the Befana is the female allegory of the old year ready to sacrifice itself to give life to a new and prosperous period. In some regions this leads to a bonfire of the old lady: a rag doll is burned in the square after, as happens in some locations of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, a tour of the city streets on a wagon.
In other cases, the puppet is displayed at a window, as happens in Florence or Rome. In the north east this tradition is very much alive.
In Veneto, the symbolic bonfire is called “panevin”; this is a bonfire that tends to erase the negative aspects of the year which has just ended and to seek the auspices for the one which has just started by looking at the direction of the sparks; the same happens in Friuli Venezia Giulia, accompanied by a glass of mulled wine and a piece of typical focaccia. In Faenza, in the province of Ravenna, the Nott de Bisò is celebrated on January 5th with the “Niballo”, a huge puppet which symbolizes all the misfortunes of the past year which is then burned. The bisò is mulled wine made from Sangiovese and spices.
Florence celebrates the Epiphany every year by the traditional Cavalcade of the Magi, the re-enactment of the arrival of the Magi at the Holy Family’s presence along the streets of the old town, on horseback, wearing Renaissance costumes of great pomp. The flag wavers’ exhibition in Piazza della Signoria shouldn’t be missed.
Epiphany closes the holiday season (the Italian rhyme states that “L’Epifania tutte le feste porta via”: “With Epiphany all the holidays are over”) and marks the beginning of Carnival.