January 6th is an important day in Italy. It marks the end of the Christmas season with Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, and the day the wise men came to present their frankincense, myrrh and gold to the baby Jesus. Traditionally it is marked by La Befana, an old woman who was asked directions by the three wise men, then invited to join them on their journey but who turned down the offer – although she later changed her mind then could not find the travelers. Or so the story goes.
In Italy, La Befana’s role has been as a gift-giving figure, traditionally their version of Santa. On the evening of January 5th, she rides around on her broomstick to visit the children, leaving gifts for those who have been good and coal to those who have been naughty.
In Florence, La Befana is celebrated by a huge parade on the morning of January 6th, the Cavalcade of Three Kings, which begins at the Palazzo Pitti and travels the narrow streets, winding through the Piazza della Signoria crossing the Ponte Vecchio and heading up to the Duomo and the Baptistery.
As with all Florentine parades, there is great pride taken in the history of the city, with fine Renaissance costumes and pageantry. There’s even a traditional flag-throwing ceremony in the Piazza della Signoria, where the Uffizi’s company of Sbandieratori (flag-throwers) wave, throw and present traditional city and family flags.
This day is the end of the Christmas holiday season in Italy and from January 7th life returns to normal, with the adults back to work and the children back in school.