Everybody loves Christmas and New Year’s Eve but, in Italy (and some other Catholic-predominant countries), there is another holiday, somewhat underrated, which takes place on January 6th: Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day.
This holiday is somehow dreaded by Italian people because, being the last one, it marks the end of the holidays and the upcoming return to work and school (usually the following day).
In Italian we have a saying which reads “L’Epifania, tutte le feste si porta via” and this rhyme means “Three Kings’ Day takes away all the holidays.”
In our religious tradition, this holiday celebrates the arrival of the three kings to Baby Jesus’ hut. The three kings would bring him gifts to celebrate the birth of the savior.
Today, tradition wants an old lady on a broomstick (similar to a witch but good to people) to bring sweets to children on this day. In fact, according to popular tradition in the night between January 5th and 6th the Befana, an elderly woman wearing worn clothes and flying on a broom, visits children’s homes bringing them sweets or ‘sweet coal’ depending on their behavior in the previous year. But what are the typical sweets related to the Befana?
The Befana Coal is a sugar-coal and it has a clear reference to the past. In fact, the coal recalls the bonfires that were built for the pagan ritual linked to the renewal of the earth. Initially this coal was inserted into the stocking just to remember the tradition. Only later did it assume the current meaning of punishment for children who misbehaved the previous year.
Supposedly, the good children shall receive candies and chocolates while the naughty ones shall receive sugar ‘coal’ as a reminder they have been naughty the previous year.
In our region, we have a song we use to celebrate her coming which goes something like this:
“The Befana comes at night, with broken shoes, with patches on her skirt, Long, long live the Befana!”
Today's tradition is probably older than its religious significance and the Epiphany tradition probably only later coincided with the Three Kings’ Day from the Christian religion.
This gift exchange in early January is probably the evolution of a pagan rite linked to agriculture dating far back to the 6th century B.C.
People who were grateful for the harvest of the previous year and who hoped for a good new harvesting year would celebrate around this time by donating to each other some fruits. But then, where did the idea of the witch-like woman originate from? You must know that from the 4th century onwards the Church of Rome began to condemn all pagan rites. It was thought that behind them there were satanic influences. Hence, the creation of the apparently negative figure of the Befana, still represented as old and ugly but at the same time as a benevolent character. In our region, we have a typical sweet for January 6th and it’s called focaccia della Befana or Befana’s focaccia bread but, in spite of its name, this special focaccia is a long leavening cake enriched with almonds and sesame seeds, with nothing to do with bread or savory focaccia. Traditionally, inside the dough is inserted a coin (carefully washed before being inserted) as a sign of good luck for the person who will find it while eating it. Watch your teeth!
In Liguria, the Epiphany is a day dedicated to children but not only and many are the events scheduled for this day. Parties with piñatas for children, theater plays, puppet shows and even a celebration with the traditional befane (several old ladies carrying sweets) coming from the sea. This event happens in the western part of Liguria. Every year, the befane arrive on board watercrafts to bring gifts, sweets and candy to children waiting for them on the beach. The event is promoted by a group of associations chosen by the Municipality during the holiday season. The day normally ends with a blessing of a laurel wreath which is normally placed by the City Hall ‘to bless’ a new year.