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The celebration of the Epiphany

She is an old woman, a little shabby, but very hardworking and much loved by children, although her appearance is not so reassuring. She travels on a broom and, in the night between 5th and 6th January, she is on the go to bring gifts, sweets in particular, to good children. For those less good, however, she only brings coal. She is loved as much as Father Christmas, but unlike the elderly bearded gentleman, she is much less famous, particularly outside Italy. Here, however, she is known by everyone as the Befana: “la Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte”("The Befana comes by night with her broken shoes"), says an old adage.Cavalcade of the Magi in Florence
The origins
On January 6th, in Italy we celebrate the Epiphany, a feast typical of some regions which then spread to the rest of the Peninsula, taking with it local traditions and folklore together with a strong religious value. Epiphany is linked, in fact, to the adoration of the Magi who came to Bethlehem twelve days after Christmas by following the comet with gifts for the baby Jesus. The appearance, however, also has its roots in pre-Christian and pagan rituals. For this reason it is a particularly complex holiday that blends with the character of the places in which is celebrated.

The various celebrations
In some traditions, the Befana is the female allegory of the old year ready to sacrifice itself to give life to a new and prosperous period. In some regions this leads to a bonfire of the old lady: a rag doll is burned in the square after, as happens in some locations of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, a tour of the city streets on a wagon. In other cases, the puppet is displayed at a window, as happens in Florence or Rome.

In the north east this tradition is very much alive. In Veneto, the symbolic bonfire is called "panevin”; this is a bonfire that tends to erase the negative aspects of the year which has just ended and to seek the auspices for the one which has just started by looking at the direction of the sparks; the same happens in Friuli Venezia Giulia, accompanied by a glass of mulled wine and a piece of typical focaccia.

In Faenza, in the province of Ravenna, the Nott de Bisò is celebrated on January 5th with the "Niballo", a huge puppet which symbolises all the misfortunes of the past year which is then burned. The bisò is mulled wine made from Sangiovese and spices.

Florence celebrates the Epiphany every year by the traditional Cavalcade of the Magi, the re-enactment of the arrival of the Magi at the Holy Family’s presence along the streets of the old town, on horseback, wearing Renaissance costumes of great pomp. The flag wavers’ exhibition in Piazza della Signoria shouldn’t be missed.

In Montescaglioso, in the area of Matera, January 5th is the time of the "Notte dei Cucibocca”: figures dressed in black, with a big hat and bushy white beards move through the streets with a lighted lantern, dragging a broken chain attached to their foot and knocking on doors to ask for food offerings.
This tradition is linked to the widespread belief in some parts of the south of Italy that the dead return to their loved ones the night before the Epiphany. It is they, and not the famous old lady, that in some cases fill the stockings hung by children with sweets.

In Sicily, in Gratteri, in the province of Palermo “A Vecchia” ("The Old one") emerges from the Cave of Grattara, wrapped in a white sheet and on the back of a donkey, and travels the road to the city centre where she distributes gifts to children. In this case, however, it is on 31st December and for the occasion a type of allegorical trial is held in the square concerning the events of the year that is about to end, in order to propitiate the one that is to come.

Epiphany is thus a magical celebration, full of deep symbolic values during which, in some locations, it is believed that even animals can talk and finally say what they think to humans.

Epiphany therefore closes the holiday season (the Italian rhyme states that “L'Epifania tutte le feste porta via”: "With Epiphany all the holidays are over") and marks the beginning of Carneval.