Procession of the Re Magi – The Three Wise Kings

This charming guest post is contributed by Nora Smyth, who is passionate about Italy and writes about her Italian impressions in her beautiful blog “Enchanting Italy”. See more pictures in  Nora’s blog.

The traditional Christmas holiday season in Italy lasts from December 8th through to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. Last January at this time of the year I was in Stresa, Lake Maggiore with my husband John and our daughter Amy. Each year Stresa performs a re-enactment of the arrival of the Three Wise Kings bearing gifts for the Baby Jesus – ‘The Annual Procession of the Re Magi’ and we wanted to be there to witness it. This day is a national holiday in Italy.
Amy, then aged 10, loved to dress up in costume and asked the owner of the hotel where we were staying if any of the spectators were going to be in costume. He said he was actually one of the organizers of the event and had a room full of costumes that she could try on and be one of the participants. She was delighted with this news. Then he asked if we too would like to take part in the actual procession – we were so honoured to get this chance.
At noon, as part of the festivities, food and drinks were provided in Piazza Cadorna in the centre of the town. Long tables were set up in the middle of the square and there was a fun atmosphere. It was nice to see the town when it was not full of tourists. The whole event is organized for the locals and the people of the surrounding area by Pro Loco Stresa with the cooperation of various associations in the town and about 50 costumed participants.
There was a choice of polenta with wild boar (cinghiale), gorgonzola cheese, tripe and ravioli, panini with grilled sausages (salamella) and apple fritters. We liked the polenta with a mushroom sauce (funghi). Many of the people from the town volunteered to help with the cooking and the serving of the food. It was a cold day but the vin brulé that was also served kept us feeling warm inside. There were also logs positioned around the piazza cut with beautiful star designs and a fire lit in the centre that warmed us also.
At 2pm a narrator accompanied the spectators to visit the various workshops of old crafts set up along the route. A flock of sheep and cute little goats also accompanied the procession along with two horses and the donkey which carried Mary. Amy especially loved seeing the animals. We arrived at the Palazzo dei Congressi to change into our costumes at 3pm. I was curious about the men with the black soot on their faces and when I asked our friend Giuseppe about them he said that they represented chimney sweeps. Since the early 1800s, many of the men from Valle Vigezzo to the north worked as chimney sweeps (spazzacamini). There is now a museum in Santa Maria Maggiore dedicated to their work and so they have a special role for the local people in this particular event.
At 3.30 the procession began. Before we left from the Palazzo dei Congressi, one of the organizers told the participants not to carry any bags, cameras or mobile phones in order to give the procession a more authentic look. I handed my camera to Giuseppe and he kindly took photos for us.
First to leave were Joseph with Mary on the donkey. Then the pipers, shepherds, chimney sweeps, and adorable angels headed towards the manger. We followed behind Gaspare (Gaspar) from the Palazzo dei Congressi and met up with Baldassarre (Balthazar) at Piazza San Michele. We had hot chocolate with Melchiorre (Melchior) on via Anna Maria Bolongaro. The thick velvety robes also helped keep us warm. It was funny going into the little coffee shop with everyone dressed up.
When everyone reunited at 4pm there was a meeting at the ‘Court of Herod’ represented by the staircase at Villa Ducale on the lungolago. The narrator told the story over the sound system. From here, the entire procession moved to the manger arranged in a cave in the park of the Villa Ducale. When the Kings bestowed their gifts upon the Bambino Gesù in the manger, we stood facing the scene and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah played from the loudspeakers. The music and lighting was provided by a company from nearby Baveno (called Easy Way) which made everything look and sound very professional. It was an emotionally evocative experience to witness this.
The whole organization of this procession and the way everyone came together to make it happen, hit me at that moment. It really was an amazing spectacle, even better than I imagined. I was surprised that the Baby Jesus was actually a real baby, who slept peacefully throughout the proceedings. My eyes filled with tears as the music played and the illuminated scene shone before me and the realization struck me that I too was a part of it. I felt like a real Stresiana for that moment and it was a good feeling…
If you happen to be in Stresa on January 6th, be sure to join in with the festivities of the Festa dell’Epifania. If you are elsewhere in Italy on that date look out for similar pageants taking place. Many towns and villages have processions ending with a living nativity scene (presepe vivente). They are often presented from December 24-26th and then repeated for the Epiphany. It is an event not to be missed!

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