In Italy, La Befana is one of the best-known characters and a favorite of children. Traditionally it’s La Befana who brings gifts and candy (or lumps of coal) to put in children’s stockings, not on Christmas but on the eve of Epiphany. Although these days most children receive gifts on Christmas, it’s still a fun day of celebrations, festivals, and small gifts and sweets. Many Christmas markets and presepe vivente, live nativity pageants, are often held on January 5 and 6 for Epiphany, too.
January 6, Epiphany, is a national holiday in Italy that marks the 12th day of Christmas and the end of the Christmas holiday season. Most tourist sites are open but public transportation may be running on holiday schedule and many stores will be closed, especially in smaller towns and rural areas.
La Befana Festivals
La Befana is a witch who rides through the sky on her broomstick to deliver gifts on the night before Epiphany, the religious day that commemorates the arrival of the 3 Kings bearing gifts at the nativity. It’s said that she was an old woman who got lost on her way to bring gifts to the baby Jesus and never made it to the manger. So she flies around each year looking for places to bring gifts. However, some say that her origins may go back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when Romans would have their augers read by an old crone, while others say her origins go back even longer ago than that.
Some towns hold a festival for La Befana. One of the biggest is held in Urbania, in the Marche region, from January 2 through 6. Children come from all over the region to see the witch arrive in her horse-drawn carriage and open the doors to her cottage, La Casa della Befana, where children can meet her. There are also parades, music, dancing, and fireworks. You can even see La Befana fly from the bell tower. Take a look at the video on La Befana Festival, Urbania.
Another place to see the house of La Befana is the woods near the town of Barga, in the Tuscan Apennines north of Lucca – see Pro Loco Barga for information.
The hill town of Viterbo, north of Rome in the Lazio region, claims to have the longest Befana stocking in the world, usually transported through town passing out sweets on January 5th.
Venice holds a fun event, the Regatta delle Befane, a short race on the Grand Canal with men dressed as La Befana rowing typical Venetian boats. The event is usually in the morning of January 6.
Epiphany is celebrated in many places with a procession, often with people wearing historic costumes, or with a re-enactment of the 3 kings arriving with gifts for Jesus. The largest procession is held in Vatican City, where hundreds of people in costume walk along the street leading to the Vatican. Following the procession, the Pope usually says a special mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Another beautiful procession is the Cavalcade of the Magi in Florence that starts near Pitti Palace in the afternoon, crosses the river to Piazza della Signoria, and ends in Piazza del Duomo with a re-enactment of the 3 Kings presenting their gifts at the nativity.
In Milan the procession starts at the Duomo, goes to the Church of San Lorenzo, and ends at the Church of Sant’Eustorgio where there’s a nativity scene.