Cronaca – December 28, 2017
Christmas Day ushers in the twelve days of celebration, ending on January 6th with the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. It commemorates the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. The Three Kings, or Three Wise Men, are mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. They are described as distinguished visitors who visited Jesus after his birth, bringing Our Savior the well-known gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were of noble birth, educated, wealthy and influential. They have been described as philosophers, counselors of rulers and learned in the wisdom of the ancient East.
The Church celebrates the solemnity of the Epiphany as a religious feast that brings a perfect fulfillment to the birth of Christ. In Italy, it is customary to replace the images of the shepherds at the crib with the Three Kings and their gifts. Throughout the country there are celebrations, not only of La Befana, but of the procession of the Magi. In Rome there is a historical parade with over 100 participants dressed in ancient costumes with 20 decorated horses accompanied by a musical band that passes through Via della Conciliazione, following the Three Kings.
Florence, in the region of Tuscany, hosts the Calvacata dei Magi. This procession usually starts at the Pitti Palace in the early afternoon and crosses the river to the Duomo. Horns and drums fill the street. The Three Magi march in line, followed by the Holy Family and flag throwers perform in Piazza della Signoria.
Further north in the region of Lombardy, Milan holds an Epiphany parade of the Three Kings from the Duomo to the church of Sant’Eustorgio. Further south in Abruzzo, Rivisondoli celebrates the Epiphany with a reenactment of the arrival of the Three Kings. Hundreds of participants wear costumes and parade to recreate the historic day.
In the far south, the Epiphany is celebrated with presepi viventi (live Nativity scenes) in many places throughout Sicily. There is even an award for the finest live Nativity scene, last year won by Monterosso Almo. You will find towns such as Custonaci, near Trapani and Balata di Baida, near Castellammare del Golfo, hosting processions of the Three Kings, as well as celebrations in Ispica, Noto, Caltagirone and Piana degli Albanesi, to name just a few.
The Legend of La Befana
Though Christmas Day has come to a close and in the United States our gift-giving season has ended, in Italy the exchanging of presents has just begun. For Italians, December 25th marks the first of the “12 Days of Christmas,” which concludes on January 6, the day of the Epiphany and the arrival of La Befana.
La Befana is a character in folklore who delivers presents to children throughout Italy. It is believed that the legend of La Befana may have originated in Rome, then spread to the rest of the country. It is believed that her name is derived from the Roman dialect of the Italian word for Epiphany, “epifania.”
Legend tells that La Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the January 6 to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal if they are bad. Because she is a good housekeeper, she sweeps the floor before she leaves. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with food for La Befana, who is portrayed as an old lady covered in soot who rides a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts or both.
La Befana, so the legend goes, was approached by the Magi (the Three Kings) a few days before Christ’s birth. She provided them with shelter for a night as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village with the most pleasant home. The Three Kings invited her to join them on their journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart and tried to find the Magi and Baby Jesus, but was not able to find them. So to this day, La Befana is searching for the baby Jesus. She leaves all the good children toys and candy, while the bad children get coal or bags of ashes.
Today, each city in Italy has its own unique way of celebrating La Befana. In the town of Urbania in the Marche region, the national La Befana festival takes place each year during the first week of January. The post office has a mailbox reserved for letters addressed to La Befana, mirroring what happens with Santa Claus in America. Italians dress up in the customary clothes of La Befana and parade through the streets of the small Renaissance town.
In Venice, a most unusual La Befana celebration takes place. The “Befana Regata,” or the race of the witches, entails men dressing up as the witch and racing down the Grand Canal. The competition, which began as a prank over 30 years ago, is now a tradition upheld each year on January 6.