January 6 is Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, and the official end of the holiday season in Italy. Epiphany represents the day the wise men (magi) arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.
Italian folklore says that along the way the wise men stopped an old woman to ask for directions (I believe this is why they were considered wise). They invited the old woman to go with them but she was too busy (cleaning house and the like) and so stayed behind. Later she tried to catch up with them and bring a gift to the Christ child but couldn't find her way- so instead she wanders around giving gifts to good children (and lumps of coal to the naughty ones) on Epiphany. Today Befana is portrayed as a witch or crone-like creature who gets around on a straw broom.
Befana arrived in Lucca to the delight of local children, tossing candy as she descended from a rooftop in Piazza San Francesco (assisted by balloons and the crane atop a local fire truck) and gave small gift-filled stockings to the little ones. We later saw her across town, jovial and dancing to accordion music accompanied by a local chorus.
The Magi arrived in a much more solemn ceremony. The story of Christmas was recited and they entered on horseback, greeted by people in medieval costume and the sound of drums. They moved through town in a procession and finally arrived at the church of San Paolino to worship at a living nativity inside the church. Ceremonies such as this seem to happen often in Italy and I am always delighted when I am able to experience one. They are meaningful and moving and just one of the many things I love about Italy.
Epiphany is not celebrated much in the United States, but it's a big part of the Christmas season in Italy. After Epiphany, the decorations come down and Italy pauses before beginning to prepare for Carnivale.
-post by JB