Cities throughout Italy celebrate the Epiphany each year with massive celebrations, parades and a national holiday. Every city celebrates the story of the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem, but nowhere is the holiday so impressively celebrated than in Milan. The entire city comes out in force for a large-scale reenactment of the procession of the Magi, complete with fabulous costumes.
On the 6th of January , the procession sets out from the Piazza di Duomo at around 11 in the morning and wends through the streets of Milan until it reaches the Basilica de Sant’Eustorgio, where a number of the Magi’s relics reside. Three people are chosen each year to play the roles of the Wise men (typically, an old man, a young man, and a Moor). The Wise men are the focal point of the procession, dressed in full finery and riding richly decorated horses.
The Corteo is often led by many bands playing Epiphany tunes on Italian bagpipes. Following the pipers, come actors portraying the shepherds and residents of ancient Bethlehem. Next, the Magi make their way one at a time, accompanied by a vast, vibrant retinue. A small cavalry typically brings up the rear, also dressed in full finery.
Halfway through the procession, the crowd stops at the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which is specially decorated as a makeshift court for King Herod. The Magi reenact the meeting between the Wise men and Herod while the procession waits and watches.
Once the meeting is finished, the crowd moves on until it reaches Sant’Eustorgio, where the Holy Family waits in a stable surrounded by live sheep, cattle, donkeys and other animals. The Magi enter and pay homage to the Christ Child, offering their traditional gifts representing gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby in the manger. Once the procession is over, speeches are made and celebrations are held. Often the Magi distribute gifts to poor children attending the event. After the celebration is over, the three Wise men hand their crowns and scepters to the sexton of the Church, putting aside their royal vestiges until the celebration resumes the following year.
Interestingly, the final destination at the Basilica de Sant’Eustorgio bears a historical connection to the original Magi. According to legend, Sant’Eustorgio, traveled to the court of Emperor Constantine where he was elected fourth century bishop of Milan. In a gesture of friendship, Constantine gave Sant’Eustorgio a number of relics of the three Magi. Sant’Eustorgio brought the relics home to Milan and had them enshrined in the Basilica.
The remains are purportedly held in an urn at the Basilica de Sant’Eustorgio, next to an empty bronze tomb. While the relics don’t typically play any role in the festivities of the Corteo de Rei Magi, many take a moment to pay homage to the ancient King travelers.
Corteo de Rei Magi is a festival that you don’t want to miss while discovering the most representative Italian traditions. Another way to discover these traditions is to rent one of the apartments in Milan city center . Enjoy Corteo de Rei Magi!