When Christmas and New Year’s Day are over, most of us contemplate with angst the long stretch of holiday-free months ahead of us, until Easter gives us something to celebrate again. And yet, there is one festivity worthwhile observing after New Year, one that is celebrated in countries like Italy, Russia and Spain. It has festive traditions associated with it and can be made into an enjoyable occasion in its own right. It is Epiphany.
Celebrated on 6th January, Epiphany is a Christian festivity, commemorating the arrival of the Magi (aka the ‘wise men’ or ‘three kings’) at the stable where the infant Jesus was born. They brought their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the new-born king. The Epiphany quite literally celebrates the manifestation of the divinity to humankind, as this is when a human being first set eyes on the son of God.
In Italy, kids hang up their stockings by the fireplace, on the night between the 5th and 6th of January, with the expectation of receiving sweets – if they have been good. In old times, naughty kids were warned to expect coal rather than sweets. Over time, coal has turned into a confection that looks like coal but tastes delicious.
Who brings the sweets? A magical character known as La Befana, a good witch who travels across the night sky on a broomstick. The origins of La Befana are ancient and unsure. Some think she has pre-Christian roots, in local folklore – others claim she is part of the Christian tradition. The former hypothesis has La Befana as evolved from a pagan goddess. The latter theory has it that the Magi, on their way to see Jesus, asked for directions and a housewife who was busy cleaning (explaining the broom reference), accompanied them on their way. Others claim La Befana is a chagrined mother who was driven mad by the loss of her child and is therefore roaming the planet in an endless search for him.
Whatever the truth may be, La Befana continues to fascinate thousands of kids (and adults!) bringing magic to households across Italy well after Christmas.
The Epiphany of course, is celebrated in other ways too, with processions and parades across city centres in Spain, with the Magi as the focal point. In fact, many Spanish kids receive their presents on the 6th January.
If you would like to introduce your kids to the magic of the Epiphany and fill their stockings with sweets and a cheeky portion of sweet coal, we have the below recipe for you! (In Italy you can purchase sweet coal in any supermarket but it is impossible to find outside of Italy).