The word epiphany means to come to a realisation or manifestation. In the Catholic sense, it occurs 12 days after the birth of Christ, on 6 January, and celebrates how a star led the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus. Millions around the world come together to celebrate Epiphany in differing ways, such as colourful street processions, gift giving and swimming in icy water.
To celebrate the Epiphany in Spain, people congregate in packed streets to view colourful parades unfold which symbolise the journey the Magi, the Three Wise Men, took to find Baby Jesus. This procession honours this journey with the use of floats, carrying performers and extravagant thrones. In terms of gift giving, children typically accept gifts from the Three Wise Men, instead of Father Nicholas. There is the tradition that if they leave their shoes outside the door on the night of 5 January, they will be filled with gifts the following morning.
In Italy, toys are said to be gifted by La Befana, a witch who rides a broomstick, and delivers sweets to well-behaved children and coal to the naughty ones. According to Italian legend, the Magi requested directions from La Befana on their journey to reach Bethlehem to bring Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. La Befana refused to assist them, but later when she regretted her decision, she embarked to find the baby Jesus herself. La Befana never found Jesus but legend says she flies around at Christmas looking high and low for him, leaving gifts down chimneys in the hope that she finds him. In some provinces in Italy, bonfires are lit with a figure of La Befana resting atop. In Florence and Rome, many display a figure of La Befana in their homes. A notable celebration is the National Befana Festival that occurs each year in Urbania, a region in Marche, which is believed to be the official home of La Befana.
The Christmas period in Greece concludes with the Festival of Light, commonly known as Epiphany. An important tradition on Epiphany is the ‘great blessing of the waters,’ which is performed by a Greek Orthodox priest. The ritual involves a special cross thrown into the sea by a priest and many people diving into cold water to retrieve it. The lucky person who finds it is blessed for a whole year, and, once the cross is returned, the priest releases a white dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. This long-standing tradition is carried out to commemorate the Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist.
As it is in Greek culture, swimming in cold water is very common in other parts of the world when it comes to Epiphany celebrations. In the Czech Republic, Prague, there is the Three Kings swim. Organised by the Charles Bridge Museum and The Prague Venice Company, it is an annual tradition, whereby participants dive into the Vltava River alongside the Charles Bridge. Some swimmers arrive in their swimming attire and don crowns for the Magi. If you take part, you receive a certificate and hot spiced rum cider.