According to the Eastern Church, Jesus Christ’s birth is celebrated on January 6th instead of December 25th, as a replacement for the pagan feast dedicated to the sun-god. That also was the day of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation (Epiphany comes from ancient Greek epiphaneia, “manifestation”) to the world as the Son of God. As per Western Christians, on January 6 the Baby Jesus received the visit of the Magi.
Epiphany in Italy
The reference to Wise Men arrival is especially felt in Nothern Italy, above all in Venice area, where since the week before Epiphany kids use to wander around holding a pole with a lighted star on the top: they knock at the doors and recite rhymes with religious symbolism.
In Liguria families use to walk around the Nativity scenes, with children reciting religious rhymes.
In Tortona, Piemonte, and Milan, Lombardy, they have a very ancient tradition, on horseback.
In Romagna and Veneto, they call Epiphany “Pasquetta” (the same as we usually call Easter Monday), as it would represent a new annual cycle.
We also have a lot of legends and propitiatory rites connected to Epiphany.
For example, in Emilia they say on Epiphany night the city walls change into ricotta cheese.
In Marches and Abbruzzo they say animals get the power of speech, and anybody who date to repeat what heard from them will die instantly.
In Calabria young women before going to bed say an auspicious rhyme, and if during the night they dream of a decorated church or a garden full with flowers, this means they will have a very lucky year.
In Tuscany country people believe that if they see the stars through the hood, that year they will produce a good wine.
In some regione Epiphany also marks the beginning of Carnival period. In Sicily and Lazio (Rome, above all) young people use to play tricks and practical jokes. Piazza Navona fills with stalls, with treats and toys for sale.
The highest expression of Epiphany celebrations is strictly connected to present exchange, a custom personified by Befana, a kind old woman, a sort of fairy, who brings gifts and treats to good children (or coal, if they’ve been bad!). That’s why kids use to hang a sock inside the house: so that the old lady can fill it with pastries and toys.
Epiphany Around the World
Epiphany is also celebrated in different countries around the world. In France they use to make typical pastries, a sort of king cakes: inside one of those, a broad bean is inserted… the person who will find the bean will be the king, or queen, of the night. Icelanders call Epiphany the “thirteenth” day, as it it 13 days past Christmas. They use to say goodbay to Christmastime with fireworks and a torch-light procession. In Spain too they do celebrate Epiphany, above all kids, who use to leave food and water for the camels and to wake up early in the morning just to see what gifts have the three Wise Men bought. In Germany priests use to go round the houses and ask for donations. In Rumania priests use to bless the houses, and kids use to knock at doors and recite rhymes in exchange for a few coins. Kids in Hungary have the same custom as well, and they also use to dress up as Wize Men as well. Finally, in Russia on January 6th the members of the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate Christmas, and according to the legend Grandfather Frost, together with a kind old lady, uses to bring gifts.