Epiphany (January 6) commemorates the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem. It is also the day of la Befana, when gifts are once again exchanged according to local custom on this day, which marks the end of the holiday festivities.
The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Christ child. It is a legal holiday in Italy (banks, stores and offices are all closed. A number of museums which are normally closed on Monday will be exceptionally open, including the Uffizi, the Accademia Gallery (both from 8:15 am to 6:50 pm), the Medici Chapels (8:15 am – 5:50 pm) and San Marco (8:15 am – 4:50 pm), in addition to all civic museums such as Palazzo Vecchio (9 am – 11 pm), Santa Maria Novella, the Brancacci Chapel (both from 1 – 5 pm) and the Novecento Museum of 20th Century Art (11 am – 7 pm).
La Befana is an aged, witch-like woman, who knows which children have been good or bad throughout the year. On the evening of January 5, Italian children hang out stockings in the hopes of them being filled with sweets. Naughty children can expect lumps of coal. Images of the Befana, with broom and black head scarf, can be seen around Tuscany.
Families are invited to take a free boat ride on the Arno accompanied by women dressed as the Befana, setting out from the Canottieri Comunali on Lungarno Ferrucci up to the Verrazzano bridge and back between 10 am and 12 noon. Hosting activities for all ages, the Canottieri Comunali boathouse is where each Befana will distribute stockings to kids filled with sweets donated by the Esselunga supermarket. Refreshments, including Christmas sweets such as pandoro and panettone will be offered to all, and adults will be handed a glass of warming vin brulè (mulled wine). Guests of honor that children are invited to play with are the water rescue dogs of the La Scuola Italiana Cani Salvataggio, who will also keep a collective eye out on the Arno excursions.
The Befanas are all members of Florence’s home team “Firenze in Rosa onlus,” a diverse and phenomenal group of women who have recovered from breast cancer and who row dragon boats as therapy. Engaging in this activity helps the women stay active and healthy. Rowing for long periods of time can be daunting, but creates a strong support network, the rowing serves as important physical rehabilitation as well.
In Florence on the afternoon of the 6th, a solemn procession, the Cavalcata dei Magi – riders on horseback, knights, ladies, soldiers, peasants, drummers and flag throwers (sbandieratori) – winds its way through the streets of the historical center of Florence.
Florentines and visitors line the streets to watch the spectacle of 700 participants dressed in sumptuous silk Renaissance attire inspired by the famous fresco, “The Procession of the Magi” by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The pageant, a Florentine tradition dating back to the 15th century, begins at Palazzo Pitti at 2 pm. At 2:30 pm there will be a free concert of Christmas songs by a children’s choir on the steps of the Florence cathedral and Cardinal Giuseppe Betori will talk about the meaning of the feast of Epiphany, and welcome children, each of whom will represent a different Florence neighborhood. In the meantime, the procession will pass through Piazza della Signoria, ending in Piazza Duomo at 3:30 pm where the Magi will present gifts to baby Jesus in a live nativity scene complete with oxen, donkey and sheep.
Simultaneously, the Befana will arrive in downtown Florence after a guest appearance earlier in the day at the Meyer Pediatric Hospital. With the help of Florence firemen, she will descend from the sky starting at 3:45 pm above the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza Signoria, landing first on the rooftop terrace of the Loggia, and finally down to Piazza Signoria. Once on the ground, the old lady will distribute candy and sweets to kids. The event is organized in conjunction with the Uffizi Gallery. (rosanna cirigliano & rita kungel)