Epiphany: Folklore and Customs
In Italy and Spanish-speaking countries, children receive GIFTS on Epiphany rather than on Christmas. Furthermore, in Spanish-speaking countries, the Three Kings, Los Reyes Magos, deliver the presents rather than SANTA CLAUS. On Epiphany Eve children leave a SHOE on their doorstep or balcony, along with some straw for the Magi’s camels. In the morning they find that the grateful Wise Men have filled their shoes with treats. In Italy La Befana, an old woman from an Italian legend, distributes presents on Epiphany. La Befana was too busy to aid the Magi on their journey to worship the newborn Jesus. As a punishment for her lack of piety, she now wanders the world during the Christmas season bringing gifts to children. In Russian folklore, a woman named BABOUSHKA plays a similar role. Berchta (or Perchta), a more fearsome female figure, appears on Epiphany Eve in GERMANY and Austria. She punishes wrongdoers and rewards well-behaved children. In these countries Epiphany is also known as Perchtennacht. In SYRIA and LEBANON Epiphany may be called "The Night of Destiny” (Lailat al-Qadr), a name it shares with a Muslim holiday. In these lands the Christmas gift bringer is a mule or a camel.
In Sweden, NORWAY, Germany, Switzerland, and POLAND, groups of costumed children known as the STAR BOYS parade through the streets of town singing songs or performing plays about the Three Kings on Epiphany Eve.
An old German tradition encourages people to bring salt, water, chalk and incense to church on Epiphany Eve to be blessed. Upon returning home, they sprinkle the blessed water over their fields, animals, and homes, and cook with the salt. They burn the incense and waft the smoke throughout their homes as a defense against evil spirits. In both Germany and Austria, the initials CMB—which stand for the names attributed to the Three Kings in legend, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—may be written over doorways with blessed chalk in order to protect the house.
In many European countries, such as France, Austria, Germany, and ENGLAND, festive meals were once planned for Epiphany featuring a special cake. A coin, pea, bean, or tiny china doll was baked inside the cake, and the person who found the object in their slice was considered "king” or "queen” of the feast (see also KING OF THE BEAN; Twelfth Night). In England, tradition reserves the unwelcome chore of removing and storing Christmas decorations for Twelfth Day.