The Epiphany

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La Festa dell’Epifania – The Epiphany

History of the Epiphany

            The Epiphany is celebrated on the 6th of January at the end of the Christmas season.  Originally it was known as the celebration of the birth of Christ, the visit of the three Magi (Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthasar), all of Jesus’ childhood events, and his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan river.   It was also initially based on the Jewish Feast of Lights.  The Epiphany is still recognized as such by the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The first reference to the celebration of the Epiphany is not until 361 in Ammianus Marcellinus.  As a result of this, the Latin church placed the birth of Christ before Epiphany and began to celebrate Christmas December 25th.  This began the celebration of the 12 days of Christmas, beginning on December 25th and ending on January 6th.  (Source 1)

            Before 1970, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the Epiphany as an eight-day feast, from January 6th through January 13th (called the Octave of Epiphany).  More recently the Epiphany was celebrated on the Sunday after the first Saturday in January.  Any Sunday that falls before this (between January 1st and January 6th was celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  Catholics, Anglicans, and a majority of Protestants now officially end the Christmas season with the Sunday of the Epiphany.  The day following is celebrated as the feast of the Baptism of the Lord and the Ordinary Time begins again in the Catholic Church. (Source 1)

            Currently in Eastern Orthodox Churches, the feast of the Epiphany is representative of the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah and the second person in the Holy Trinity as revealed during his baptism by John the Baptist.  It is more commonly called the Feast of the Theophany.  “Theophany” is a Greek word meaning “God shining forth.” (Source 1)

            Today the Epiphany is celebrated differently in many countries.  In Ireland it’s celebrated as “Little Christmas.”  In Latin American countries it is called El Dia de Reyes (Kings’ Day, for the three Maji) or Pascua de Negros (Blackmen Christmas).  In Rome, Italy, perhaps the biggest celebration of the Epiphany of all, La Befana is celebrated with a great fair starting at the beginning of the Christmas season. (Source 1)

Timeline of the Christmas Season

December 6th : La Festa di San Nicola - The festival in honor of St. Nicholas, the patron

saint of shepherds, is celebrated in towns such as Pollutri with the lighting of fires under enormous cauldrons, in which fave (broad beans) are cooked, then eaten ceremoniously.

December 8th : L'Immacolata Concezione - celebration of the Immaculate Conception

December 13th : La Festa di Santa Lucia - St. Lucy's Day

December 24th : La Vigilia di Natale - Christmas Eve

December 25th : Natale - Christmas

December 26th : La Festa di Santo Stefano - St. Stephen's Day marks the announcement

   of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Three Wise Men

December 31st : La Festa di San Silvestro - New Year's Eve

January 1st : Il Capodanno - New Year's Day

January 6th : La Festa dell'Epifania - The Epiphany

La Befana

            La Befana is the white-haired witch who visits the homes of good Italian children on the night of January 5th and fills their stockings with toys and sweets.   The story of La Befana varies slightly but all come to the same conclusion.  A popular version of the tale begins when the Three Wise Men stop at the home of an old woman to ask her directions the night before they arrive at Jesus’ manger.  They invite her to come along but she replies that she is too busy.  She has to wash the dishes, clean the house and wash the clothes before she can do anything else.  Later, a Shepherd, also on his way to honor Jesus stops and asks her to join him but again she refuses.  A few hours later, she is dusting around the windowsill and she sees out the window a great light in the sky.  With this her mind is changed and she decides to join the Wise Men and the shepherd and honor the Christ-child.  La Befana hops on her broomstick and takes with her gifts that had belonged to her son who had died to give to Jesus.  However, on her way to the manger she lost her way and never found Jesus to give him his gifts.  Instead, she stopped at every house she saw and put the gifts in the stockings of sleeping children.  Every year La Befana still flies around on her broomstick in search of the Christ-child and on her way she stops in every house to give gifts to the children inside in hope that she might someday find Baby Jesus.  Italian children hang their stockings on the night of January 5th for La Befana when she flies over on her broomstick. (Source 2)

Festivals

            La Befana festivals are held all over Italy.  In most places, the Epiphany is a bigger celebration than that of Christmas itself.  One of the biggest celebrations occurs in the town of Urbania, in Le Marche region.  There a four day festival is held for La Befana from January 2nd to January 6th.  Children go to La Casa della Befana to meet La Befana and to receive gifts of small toys. (Source 2)

In Venice, on January 6th, La Befana Races are held once a year.  During this event, men dressed as La Befana push themselves along the Grand Canal in specially built skiffs and racing gondolas.  The boats are powered by single rowers, or by teams of two, three, four, or six depending on the size and type of the boat.  The boats are rowed, instead of by oars,by broomsticks (or oars with a few twigs attached to the end) in honor of La Befana. (Source 3)

 

            In Rome, La Befana is celebrated by a huge carnival that is located in Piazza Navona, one of the most prominent historical piazze in the city.  Every year, on the 6th of December, stalls are put up around the perimeter of the piazza.  The vendors sell candy, toys, nativity scenes and of course thousands of La Befana dolls.  There are carnival games and a large carousel at one end of the piazza.  People from all over Italy come to the Piazza Navona to browse through the beautiful nativity scenes and to munch on a variety of Italian Christmas sweets.                                               Piazza Navona

 

Sources

1.  Anonymous. "Epiphany." ReligionFacts. Updated 29 December 2004.  Accessed 12 April 2008  <http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/holidays/epiphany.htm>.

2.  Bakerjian, Martha.  “La Befana and Epiphany in Italy.”  About.com.  The New York Times Company: 2008.  Accessed 12 April 2008. <http://goitaly.about.com/od/festivalsandevents/a/epiphany.htm>.

3.  Anonymous.  “La Befana.”  Love Venice.  Updated 27 June 2006.  Accessed 12 April 2008 <http://lovevenice.blogspot.com/2006/06/33-la-befana.html>.