The Feast of the Epiphany is a Catholic feast day which celebrates the journey of the three wise men to pay homage to baby Jesus in the stable. January 6 is a public holiday in Italy and on the night of January 5 the witch Befana (originating from the word ‘Epiphana”) flies on her broomstick to give presents to the good children and a lump of coal to the bad.
The day marks the last day of the 12 days of christmas. Work and school usually commence in Italy on the following Monday. Befana also leaves her gifts at grandparents’ houses and uncles’ and aunties’ houses for the children so most Italian children are feeling quite sick by the end of the day!
In the past, rather than getting presents from Papa Natale at christmas, the Epiphany (a tradition since the 12 th century), was the time when children received presents but of course now they receive both in our time of excess.Each region has its traditional food for the feast often being a home made bread with raisins.
The story of La Befana describes an old woman who was known for spending her days cooking and cleaning her small home. On the verly first Christmas, she was visited by the three wise men who had stopped by her house to ask for directions to Bethlehem. The old woman took pity on the men who were tired and still had a long journey ahead of them, so asked them to stay the night.
During dinner, they told her that they were going to visit the Christ child and asked her if she would like to join them. She declined, as she still had dishes to wash, floors to sweep and chores to do.
The next morning, after the men said their goodbyes and went on their way, the old woman suddenly regretted her decision to stay behind and so ever since, on the 5th January- the eve of the Epiphany- she has gone to visit every home with children to leave behind a small gift, hoping that one of them is the Christ child.