The epiphany in Rome: all you need to know about La Befana and the 6th of January in Rome

by marta

The Epiphany in Rome: all you need to know about the 6th of January in Rome. Italian Epiphany traditions, how to celebrate La Befana in Rome, foods and magical characters you need to know!

The 6th of January is a fabulous day for kids in Rome.

On this day, Italy celebrates the Epiphany, the festivity remembering the arrival of the Three Kings to the crib of baby Jesus: the day is deemed so important that it is a day off.

The epiphany is the last day of the Christmas holidays, and Italy even has a saying about it: Il Giorno dell’epifania, tutte le feste porta via (the day of the Epiphany takes away all the festivities).

It is a wonderful day of celebration and candy and it is particularly beloved by children and by the oldest generations, who used to exchange presents on the epiphany, before the Santa/Father Christmas tradition took over.

The Epiphany is a nationwide celebration and there is not much that is specific to the city of Rome about it.

However, since it is a holiday, it is worth knowing about it and what to expect if you are in Rome on La Befana day!

See also >>> all you need to know about visiting Rome in January

This is what to expect on the 6th of January, the Epiphany, in Rome.

close up up festive carousel in Rome Piazza Navona

What is the 6th of January called in Rome? 

The 6th of January in Rome and Italy in general has two names: the Epiphany and la Befana.

The Epiphany is a name associated with the religious day of the arrival of the three kings to the baby Jesus (from the Greek: epi + phaneias >> to appear, to manifest oneself)

La Befana is a later term, probably derived from the word epiphany,and has to do with a magical figure that visits children on this day!

See below for details!! 

How is the Epiphany celebrated in Rome?

The day of the Epiphany, the 6th of January is a national holiday in Rome and Italy.

Religious people would start the day going to mass, as this is a day of obligation for Catholics. 

Non-religious people usually use this day to enjoy the last festivity of the season and then wrap up the holiday, getting ready for the return to daily life on the 7th.

If you are a child or have a child, the Epiphany in Rome is even more special as you’ll wake up to a magical visitor: la Befana! 

La Befana aka the Italian Christmas Witch, is an old lady: traditionally dressed in rags and with a head scarf tied under her chin, she travels on a magical broom.

On the night of the Epiphany, she brings sweets to well-behaved children and coal to the naughty ones. She typically leaves her bounty in a long stocking near the chimney or the kitchen. 

The Befana is a wonderfully charming character.

Her story is controversial and, in large part, recent. However, it has very ancient origins. 

According to the most common version of la Befana story, la Befana was an old woman who lived on the way the Three Kings followed to get to Bethlehem.

On their way to see the Christ child, the three kings stopped at her house, enjoyed her hospitality and offered her to join them in their journey. 

La Befana refused, too taken by housework to join the men (maybe a reference to the parable of Marta and Mary?), but then regretted her choice and set out on a journey around the world to bring presents to baby Jesus.

She wrapped in what she had available: a stocking!

Her present of choice is coal, which sounds very strange nowadays but was a sign of prosperity in pagan times and considered a brilliant gift!

However, modern times have done away with this part of the story: first, the coal became a punishment for being naughty, then it got replaced altogether, but something kids will enjoy: sweet coal!

Sweet coal is now the most traditional epiphany sweet in Rome: made of sugar, il looks just like the real thing but you can suck on it for a real sugar kick!

Unlike the stocking kids prepare for Italian Santa/ Babbo Natale, la Befana brings you her creation, usually much less refined than anything modern marketing has created for her male counterpart and fills it with sweets exclusively.

If you find yourself in Rome in January, you will see many variations of it in all deli, sweet shops and supermarkets and you will also see something that may look peculiar: sweet, edible coal!

This version of the story doesn’t strike as particularly ancient, but some elements of it do, especially the fact that la Befana brings coal, which is an ancient sign of fertility and prosperity, very common in ancient pagan religion.

Rome epiphany traditions – The best places to celebrate the Epiphany in Rome

The arrival of la Befana is a primarily private event.

Unlike Father Christmas, la Befana doesn’t have dens or grottos for children to meet her in the days leading to the festivity. Children usually wake up to her presents with a lot of anticipation but little fuss.

Despite this, since the day is a festivity, some things are traditional in Rome for the Epiphany, such as:

Going to the Piazza Navona Christmas market – the Epiphany is the last day of the piazza Navona Christmas market, an institution in Rome.

The market is not very big. However, it is the most spectacular Christmas market in Rome as it takes place in the beautiful piazza Navona, a backdrop like no other!

Going to Piazza Navona on the 6th of January is traditional for many families and you’ll find plenty of kids here, on this day.

Read here >> what to expect from the Piazza Navona Christmas market.

See the nativity scenes. Another traditional thing to do in Rome on the 6th of January is going to see nativity scenes. Since this is the day of the arrival of the Three Kings, it is also when you can see the scene at its most complete: the Kings, in some cases, are only added for this occasion. 

Lovely nativity scenes in Rome are:

  • In the center of St Peter’s Square
  • Under the colonnade in St Peter’s square, where this year there is a free exhibition of them
  • In the church of Sant’Eustachio near the Pantheon
  • In most churches
  • In the Piazza Navona Christmas market

Epiphany in Rome foods

There are no special foods associated with la Befana in Rome except the sweets that the children traditionally get in the Befana stocking. In particular, the sweet coal is typical of this time and. A must-have in the Befana bounty!

How to make your kids experience La Befana in Rome

You can get your kids experience the magic of La Befana by making sure they find a stocking full of sweets when they wake up on the 6th of January.

You can buy a ready made stocking (available in all supermarkets) or make your own.

The most traditional ones would have a mix of sweets that include candy, golden chocolate coins, sweet coal, chocolate bar, nuts or peanuts but you can add anything your child fancies!

Then, you can join the other kids in Piazza Navona for even more sweets and a ride on the carousel.

Opening hours and closures on the day on the 6th of January in Rome

The Vatican Museums are closed on the day of the Epiphany (6th January).

Churches may be closed to visitor not attending mass during the celebration: times vary by church and are available at the door of each.

The Colosseum is open on the 6th of January and so are most museums and attractions. Since this is a day off, expect crowds and consider making a booking if planning on eating out.

Small establishments outside of the city centre may close this day; most places however will be open and catering to the needs of the many visitors Rome experiences on the epiphany.

You can find here >>> my list of recommended restaurants in Rome.

La Befana in Rome – pin this!

Piazza Navona in Rome with festive carousel and text: the epiphany in Rome (6th Jan.)

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