La Befana in Rome

Religious feast forms backdrop to day of festivities and shopping in Rome

On 6 January, Italians celebrate the religious feast of the Epiphany or the more popular one of La Befana. It is a public holiday across Italy and marks the official end of the Christmas season.

In the Bible tradition the feast of the Epiphany is when the three magi arrive in Bethlehem to visit the Christ child, an event celebrated by Pope Francis with a Mass in St Peter's Basilica at 10.00.

In the popular fairytale version the story goes that the wise men invited a witch to join them on their journey to bring gifts to the Christ child. She initially refused, but then tried to follow them. Unable to find Jesus she gave the toys to other children.

In Rome children hang stockings by windows or fireplaces in anticipation of her visit to receive sweets if they’ve been good or coal if they have misbehaved. For almost a century the story has been reenacted each year in Piazza Navona, and many of the city's shops and bars have a "strega" perched on the counter for the day.

While public offices and schools are closed, it is traditionally a busy day for the capital's retail sector, with the post-Christmas sales season in full swing. This year sales began in the Lazio region on 4 January and continue over the subsequent six weeks.

Confcommercio, the confederation for businesses in the retail and service sectors, estimates that each household will spend about €300 in this year's January sales, a decrease of around five per cent on last year.

Shoppers should be aware that the prices on items for sale must be indicated clearly, with the original as well as the sales’ price. Discounts are only allowed on stock already in the shop before the sales, not on items bought in at a discount.

On Rome's Via del Corso on 4 January dozens of semi-naked shoppers queued up outside a noted Spanish retail store which promised that the first 100 shoppers could dress themselves free of charge once the shop opened.

All of Rome's civic museums are open on 6 January as well as the following institutions: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GNAM), Palazzo Venezia, Galleria Borghese, Galleria Spada, Galleria Corsini, Palazzo Barberini and the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia. Also open is Villa Adriana in the town of Tivoli, about 30 km north-east of the capital.

The limited traffic zone (ZTL) applies in Rome's city centre from 14.00 to 18.00, while there will be increased bus services to Piazza Navona, the traditional epicentre of La Befana. For full transport details see the Muoversi a Roma website.