The Epiphany in Italy: all you need to know about one of Italy’s most beloved festivities
The Epiphany in Italy: all you need to know about the 6th of January in Italy. Italian Epiphany traditions, foods and magical characters you need to know!
The 6th of January is a fun day to be in Italy, especially if you are child (in age or at heart!)
It is the day when the country celebrates the Epiphany, the festivity remembering the arrival of the Three Kings to the crib of baby Jesus, and it is one of the most beloved holidays in the country.
Traditionally, it was the day many children would receive gifts before the 25th of December took over in this sense, and it is still now marked by important and fun traditions.
It is also a day of shop and attraction closures.
The 6th of January in Italy marks the end of the holiday season and it is the time when Christmas Trees come down and bedtime arrives earlier, to allow for the return of school the day after.
The saying goes ‘L’Epifania, tutte le feste porta via’ = The Epiphany carries festivities away’ however, there is still a lot of fun to be had on this day.
This is what to expect on the 6th of January, the Epiphany, in Italy.
Italian epiphany traditions
La Befana, Italy’s Christmas Witch
Epiphany in Italy is synonymous with a magical character called Befana, who makes its appearance on this day or, should I say, in the night between the 5th and 6th of January.
La Befana looks like a witch and, on the night of the Epiphany, travels around Italy on her broomstick to brink a stocking full of sweets to the nice kids and a bucket of coal to the naughty ones!
The Befana is a wonderfully charming character.
Unlike the stocking kids prepare for Italian Santa/ Babbo Natale, la Befana brings you her own creation, usually much less refined than anything modern marketing has created for her male counterpart, and fills it with sweets exclusively.
If you find yourself in Italy in January, you will see many variations of it in all deli, sweet shops and supermarkets and you will also see something that may look peculiar: sweet, edible coal (it is made of sugar)!
Traditionally, la Befana brings coals to naughty kids.
However, modern times have kind of done away with this part of the story and only give stuff to children the kids will actually enjoy.
To maintain the tradition of the coal, the sweet coal invention has come to the rescue: now children still receive coal but if they taste it, they will see the black crystals are made or sugar!
Fun fact: coal originally wasn’t a bad present but rather and excellent one. As well as useful, it was a symbol of prosperity!
The arrival of the Three Kings on Nativity Scenes
The Epiphany celebrates the day the Three Kings got to Jesus’s crib, which is remembered in nativity scenes across the country.
This is an excellent day to go and visit churches: many of them add to their cribs the Kings just on this day – this can be a fun things to do with children or to tap into an important Italian artisan tradition, that of nativity figurines.
The Christmas markets
Christmas markets are not a huge Italian tradition.
However, there are several around the country (Bolzano, Vipiteno and Merano have some of he best, have a look here for dates and info) and some are particularly popular on the 6th of January.
One that comes to mind more than others is the Christmas Market in Rome: the 6th of January is one of the busiest time to visit as it is traditional for Rome families to hang here to celebrate the end of the holidays with a last hurrah.
Epiphany in Italy foods
Traditional foods eaten on the Epiphany in Italy are:
- Sweets, sweets and more sweets of any kind (it’s like an Italian Halloween, full of treats!)
- Caramelized apples (typical of Christmas markets especially)
- Cavallucci di Siena (soft biscuits from Siena, Tuscany)
- Anicini Liguri (biscuits from Liguria served with wine)
- Pastiera Napoletana (the first of the year, popular now but even more over Easter)
- Strufoli (friend, sweet treats from Campania)
- All Italian Christmas foods, before the end of the holidays, gets the whole country into diet mode.
Epiphany closures and need to know
The day of the epiphany is a day off in Italy and this may affect your sightseeing plans.
While most attractions and restaurants stay open, smaller establishments and villages with little tourism may slow down and celebrate the epiphany with family.
If traveling on this day, it is worth checking with your attraction of choice if and how the befana may affect opening hours.
Trains and transport are usually not affected.
Useful Italian words about the Epiphany in Italy
La Befana = Italy’s Christmas witch
Scopa = broom (la Befana’s mode of transportation!)
Carbone = coal
Epifania = epiphany
Re Magi = The Three Kings / The Three Wise Men
Oro, incenso e mirra = gold, frankincense and myrrh
Presepe = nativity scene
Frequently asked questions about the epiphany in Italy
How is the Epiphany celebrated in Italy?
The day of the Epiphany, the 6th of January, is a national holiday in Italy. Traditionally, on this day, the Italian Christmas Witch La Befana brings sweets and sweet coal to well behaved children, leaving her bounty in a long stocking near the chimney or in the kitchen. Families traditionally add the figurines of the Three Kings to the nativity scene.
Is Epiphany a public holiday in Italy?
Yes, Epiphany is a public holiday in Italy. It is the last day of festivities and the saying goes ‘l’epifania, tutte le feste porta via’ = epiphany takes away all the festivities
What does Befana mean in Italy?
Befana is the name of a magical creature celebrated in Italy on the 6th of January, the day of the epiphany. Befana is a good witch who travels the world dressed in rags, on a magical broom, bringing sweets and sweet coal to children around the world to celebrate the day of the Epiphany, when the Three Kings reached baby Jesus.
What is Epiphany called in Italian?
In Italian, we call Epiphany Epifania or also La Befana. Epifania highlights the religious aspect of Three Kings day, while La Befana is less connotated.
What Italian food is traditional for epiphany?
Sweets, caramelized apples, torrone and all Christmas leftovers (panettone, pandoro etc) are traditional on the epiphany as a way to finish off the Christmas food before the return to work and the non-festive season.
What do Italians call January 6th?
In Italy, we call January 6th Epifania or La Befana. Epifania (epiphany) recalls the event celebrated on this day, the arrival of the Three Wise men to baby Jesus. La Befana is the name of the magical visitors that visits Italian children on this days, bringing them sweets and sugar coal.