Epiphany and the Italian bonfire tradition

Bonfire for Epiphany in Italy And this year we have come again to the end of the Christmas festivities.

Epiphany is on the 6th of January and it is the day when the three Kings arrived in Bethlehem to worship Jesus. To me Epiphany means bonfire too.

The tradition of lighting a bonfire on the day of Epiphany is pre-christian and steps right back to the Middle Ages, a period of demons and magic. This was acquired and adapted by the Christian tradition. It is very popular in the north-east of Italy.

During the Middle ages this time of the year was crucial, because it was  immediately after the sowing season and was full of hopes and expectations for the future harvest and people relied on it for survival.

Lighting a bonfire meant saying goodbye, therefore what had not been good of the past year was burned. Basically a good wish for the new year.

If you drive around in the evenings on the 5th and the 6th of January you will see the landscape illuminated by an aura of light – magical! All north-eastern Italian villages and towns and many people at home will light a bonfire often with a puppet (the poor Befana!) on top which represents the old year burned on a stake to welcome a new wishful year.

Mulled wine

People will gather around it, eat some pinza (the typical Epiphany cake, made with fennel, dried fruit and pine nuts and not to be confused with pizza) and drink a glass of mulled wine.

The warmth of the fire in the cold winter air makes the atmosphere feel magical and a feeling of  nostalgia is in the air. This is because all the Christmas celebrations and a whole year are over and a new, hopefully prosperous, year has started.

Then, depending on the direction the smoke goes, people will make predictions as to whether or not it will be a good year.

And hopefully it will be…

The bonfire for Epiphany

Italians eating a the table

All together chatting and laughing

Pinza Italian Epiphany cake made with pumpkin

Pinza is the traditional cake for Epiphany in the north-east of Italy

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3 Responses to Epiphany and the Italian bonfire tradition

  1. Dottie Sauchelli Balin

    Hi Alida,
    What an interesting post this one is! All the research I have done, once again I missed this one..Never heard of lighting a bonfire. Which meant saying goodbye, to the past year and wishing for a good New Year. You learn something every day..As you said it is from the NorthEast, and most of my family is from the South, Scillian and from Calabria.The Pinza Epiphany cake, made with fennel, dried fruit and pine nuts sounds and looks delicious! Hope the smoke goes in the correct direction for you and brings you Molto Fortuna! Thanks for sharing these traditions…Blessings..Dottie 🙂

  2. Louise

    I’ve never heard of bonfires either for Epiphany, Alida. What a quaint tradition. The cake is new to me also. Although I have heard of a cake for the Feast of Epiphany but it didn’t include fennel. I don’t think:)

    Marion and I will be celebrating Little Christmas today at the women’s shelter. It has kept us very busy the last week making trinkets to give out to the kids but it has been fun too!!!

    Thank you so much for sharing, Alida…It’s going to be a GREAT year!!!

  3. Mark E. Selin

    I lived in San Antonio di’ Porcia in Northern Italy during the 90s and early 2000s. I remember the Epiphany bonfire tradition very well and really enjoyed it. Fat people that are familiar with that part of Italy it is a very rural type of area at the base of the Dolomite mountains and has lots of farmland. They would stack wood and Christmas trees over 20 feet high and it was quite a sight to see. Christmas season in Italy was such a spiritual and a wonderful time of the year. I will always have find memories of that amazing place.

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