The epiphany is a Catholic holiday celebrating the visit of the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus. They arrived twelve days after his birth on January 6, a day of obligation in many Catholic Christian countries.


calza-befana_305x380Photo Credit: Vanity Fair


It is perhaps not generally known that this day of feasting has remote origins. It’s meant to celebrate the first manifestation of Jesus to humanity represented by the Three Wise Men (Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar), who recognized the Messiah’s arrival, bringing him gifts of gold as a tribute to his kingship, incense for his divinity, and myrrh for the anticipation of his future redemptive pain.

This is why the Catholic tradition is that on January 6, children receive sweets by the Three Wise Men in typical Christmas color socks, in memory of the gifts brought to Jesus over 2000 years ago. However, this doesn’t happen in Italy, where instead, Befana is in charge of this job.


Photo Credit: Fai da te mania-Pianeta donna


Befana’s story, according to a “Christianized” version of the legend dating back to the twelfth century, started when the Three Wise Men, unable to find their way to Bethlehem asked for help from a “wise old woman.” They then asked her to join them to visit the King of the Jews, but the old lady refused, regretting her choice almost immediately. After making a basket full of sweets, she went from house to house giving away sweets in vain, hoping that one of the children could be Jesus.


BEFANA-2Photo Credit: Eticamente


This event is completely different in the U.S., where the Epiphany, known as Three Kings’ Day, is mainly celebrated by the southern states as a traditionally pagan festival between Christmas and Carnival. The common denominator between the European and the North American versions of this day is the celebration of sweets, which all are hungry for.


king cakePhoto Credit: Food Network


There are many other traditions for this day around the world, especially in Christian, but not Catholic countries. In the Orthodox Albania, for example –  where a crucifix is thrown into the river, and those who manage to find it will be blessed throughout the year. Or in Protestant Germany, where children go around dressed as Three Wise Men to bestow blessings from door to door. In Spain, the Three Kings are loved even more than Santa Claus. In Iceland they tell stories of elves, mixing sacred religion and traditional folklore.

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