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Celebrate the Epiphany Italian Style
Discover how you can incorporate Italian traditions into your holiday
by Francesca Di Meglio
Italians, like many other cultures around the world, celebrate Little Christmas or the Epiphany with as much verve as they do Dec. 25. In fact, when my father was growing up in Italy in the 1950s, he would wait with much more anticipation for Epifania, which comes on Jan. 6 and marks the arrival of the three wise men or magi at Baby Jesus' manger. After all, this is when my papa' would put out a stocking (one of his mom's actual stockings and not the fancy ones we have) and wake up to find gifts – from the Italian Christmas witch, La Befana, inside. If you are not living in Italy but would like to incorporate Epifania into your traditions, here are 4 ways to celebrate:
- Keep the stockings hung by the chimney with care
Many Italian American families I know (including my own) keep the decorations – outdoor lights, tree, and nativity scene – up until Jan. 6. Obviously, the magical part of an Italian Christmas is the arrival of La Befana on Jan. 6. If you keep your stockings up until Jan. 6, you might find a lovely little surprise from the good witch. She too, however, will leave coal if you're naughty, so you better be nice. Back in the day, La Befana brought good little boys and girls, like my father, No. 2 pencils and pens for school, tangerines, walnuts, and a piece of chocolate. Today, young children might receive a little toy, book, or a shirt, for instance. My cousins once received Disney watches from La Befana. They were particularly good that year, and she was particularly generous.
- Help La Befana
Much like Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), La Befana has little helpers, who dress up like her on Jan. 6 to help deliver gifts and meet with Italy's babes. Someone from your family can offer aiuto by whipping out the Halloween garb, making like a witch, and giving the kiddies (and some of the worthy adults) a gift or two. Don't forget the broom and witch nose. They make the outfit.
- Eat like kings
The three wise men have arrived, so you need to celebrate. How do Italians celebrate everything? By gathering around the table, of course. So, prepare a meal fit for the three kings. Include the usual antipasto – various cured meats and cheese and maybe some crudite – followed by a spectacular pasta dish. You could make fresh gnocchi or ravioli, lasagna, or baked ziti. It's up to you really. Then, top off your meal with a delicious dessert, such as Napoli's traditional Christmas struffoli (honey balls).
- Add the wise men to the nativity
While many Italians now have little Christmas trees in their homes, the nativity scene or presepio remains the most important holiday decoration. Many of them are elaborate works of art featuring hand carved statues and much more than merely the scene of the Baby Jesus and those gathered around Him. In the United States, you see Baby Jesus and the others in the nativity scene all season long. But in Italy, the Italians wait until midnight on the Vigilia (Christmas Eve) to place Jesus into the scene because that's when he was born. They sometimes also wait until Jan. 6 to place the three wise men. You could do the same.
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012), and you can follow her work at the Two Worlds Web site.
Article Published 12/18/2012
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