Although in most of Christendom, especially on the Catholic liturgical calendar, we have the eight days or the Octave of Christmas, along with the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, you wouldn’t know it in the U.S. thanks to Madison Avenue. Valentine’s cards, decorations, and gift items began lining the shelves on December 26th, even earlier in some areas.
If you attend Mass or church services regularly, you understand that Epiphany is also the 12th day of Christmas. However, in our increasingly secularized American culture, it means little or nothing. Not the case in Italy. As a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. Epiphany is just as important as Christmas, involving great family gatherings, along with public festivities and celebrations. It is also a national holiday.
This came as a surprise to me the first time I experienced Epiphany in Rome. I was trying to make my way to St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus message, hoping to not only see the Pope, but to be able to get some of my religious items blessed. I was staying in an apartment that would normally be only a ten-minute cab ride to the Vatican, but on this Sunday morning traffic was so backed up, that I ended up getting out of the cab and walking from the Tiber all the way down the main avenue leading to the basilica, the Via Della Conciliazione.
There were people everywhere, many of whom were dressed in elaborate, medieval costumes, mimicking the regal dress of the Magi of the Bible. By the time I made my way into the square I was almost trampled by costumed men on horseback, yes you read correctly, on horseback.
This feast in Italy is serious business, and something to see as the decorations are just as vibrant as they were weeks before Christmas. And that’s not all. During and even a few days after the feast of the Epiphany, if you head to the mountain top town of Greccio in the Lazio region, you’ll have the opportunity to see a special play dedicated to St. Francis, who among other things, established the first nativity scene in this location centuries ago.
If you’re planning to go in mid to late January, there will be a feast day of another kind, on January 17th to celebrate St. Anthony the Abbot. This saint happens to be the patron of butchers, domestic animals, and grave diggers. In Rome, the church of San Atonio Abate will have a special “blessing of the beasts”. And in Assisi’s Santa Maria degli Angeli, or St. Mary of the Angels, celebrates with an elaborate procession of horses and other animals.
In Italy, there is always a faith-based celebration, even as the wonderous season of Christmas winds down. Buon Natale, Felice anno nuovo!