Epiphany’s Three Kings & Befana in Florence

Epifania, cavalcata dei Magi
foto Opera del Duomo / Claudio Giovannini

A legal holiday in Italy (major museums will also be open on a holiday schedule), Epiphany (January 6) commemorates the arrival of the Three Kings (Re Magi) in Bethlehem. It is also the day of la Befana, when gifts are exchanged according to local custom.

La Befana is an old, witch-like woman, who, like Santa Claus, knows if children have been good or bad. Stockings are hung out on the night of the 5th, waiting to be filled by the Befana with coal for the bad and sweets for the good. To celebrate this uniquely Italian tradition, representations of the Befana, complete with headscarf and broom, are displayed around Florence and Tuscany, and young and old wait for a gift-laden visit from the lady herself.

To open the day’s festivities, a parade of Italian classic and antique cars from Piazzale delle Cascine (10:30 am) to Piazza Santa Maria Novella, where the cars will remain on display until 1 pm.

All are invited to take a boat ride on the Arno river between 10 am and 12 noon accompanied by the Befana, setting out from the Canottieri Comunali on Lungarno Ferrucci up to the Verrazzano bridge. La Befana will also give out treats to kids at the Comunali boathouse.

Befana will also make a visit to the patients of the Meyer Pediatric Hospital in the morning.  Afterwards, with the help of Florence firemen, La Befana will fly down from the sky, landing first on the rooftop terrace of Loggia dei Lanzi and finally down to Piazza Signoria where she will donate candy and toys to children (4 pm).

To celebrate the religious significance of Epiphany, every January 6 the Cathedral’s Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore organizes the Parade of the Magi (Calvalcata dei Magi).  The day starts with a living Nativity scene at the creche outside the Duomo (11 am).  Later on (2:30 pm), a Renaissance dance performance will take place in piazza Pitti, which also provides the starting point for a historic pageant headed by the Three Kings (Magi).  The event references an ancient Florentine tradition when a group of people who were dedicated to the Wise Men and followed certain religious rules organized the parade “Festa de ‘Magi.”

Flag-throwers (sbandieratori) and musicians in Renaissance costume will accompany a procession (Calvalcata dei Magi) with the Three Kings (I Re Magi) and other riders on horseback. Starting at 2 pm, the colorful retinue will travel from Piazza Pitti, over Ponte Vecchio, to Piazza Signoria, and down via Calzaiuoli to their destination, Piazza del Duomo. There, a live Nativity scene, complete with oxen, donkey and sheep, will be set next to the Cathedral.  The Magi will reenact the arrival to the manger and lay down their gifts for the Christ child at the foot of the Nativity scene (3:15 pm).

The meaning of the Epiphany will be discussed for children and adults alike and the re-enactment will end with a beautiful display of balloons being released into the air as a celebration. (rosanna ciriglianodanna friedman)