Wildly popular Three Kings celebration in Belleville comes with new twist

This was the first year that Belleville incorporated La Befana into its annual Three Kings Day celebration. Belleville resident Maggie Bido, dressed as the witch who brings good boys and girls gifts, handed out bags of candy. Township of Belleville

The window of a red Honda Accord crept down to reveal a preschooler with a puzzled expression stretched across his face. Maggie Bido got a lot of those looks.

She wore a pockmarked, pasty-skinned mask Saturday, Jan. 6, as Belleville for the first time incorporated La Befana into its annual Three Kings Day celebration — an after-Christmas holiday observed in Italy and by Italian-Americans here.

According to tradition, the old lady with a big nose and an apparently bigger heart brings candy and presents to well-behaved children.

“I’m a good witch,” Bido said to one of the kids who hesitated to accept the bags of candy she was handing out.

Bido passed out about 400 bags of candy that night in her role as La Befana, as a steady snowfall did little to dampen the town’s annual drive-through event at Belleville High School.

Residents who had followed the crisscrossing spotlights in the sky to the school were greeted with a festive night filled with bright lights, dancers in dazzling costume, floats, music, candy and gifts for children.

Live camels, who represent the Three Kings’ journey through the desert with gifts, have become fan-favorites over the celebration’s four years in Belleville. Blissfully chewing on hay, they even seemed to be in the holiday spirit.

Volunteers such as Bido made the night possible.

She not only stood in the wind-driven flurries to hand out candy to each kid, she went so far as to design her own costume down to the dowdy sweater, head scarf and long skirt.

Brenda Pacheco, a newly sworn-in member of the Belleville Board of Education, volunteered to greet each vehicle as it arrived. She wrote the number of kids in each car on a slip of paper and handed it to the driver. The drivers then presented the slip to the volunteers who were in charge of finding an age-appropriate gift among the hundreds that were wrapped and ready at the end of the line.

“The spirit here tonight is wonderful,” Pacheco said, as she took a break to wring out her gloves. “It feels like all of Belleville is happy and celebrating Three Kings Day and La Befana. The snow makes it even more festive.”

Pacheco, Bido and dozens of others have been devoting their time for weeks to prepare for the event, collecting toys, wrapping them and putting the candy bags together.

The Belleville Fire Department hung a massive star from the end of one of its ladder trucks and a member of the township’s Department of Public Works used a pickup with a plow to clear the path before cars started arriving.

Others were recruited that night.

Take John Celleri, of the town’s building department, who arrived to drop off some toys and ended up serving as one of the Three Kings.

“Just seeing the kids when they roll down the windows and the smiles and seeing the parents, it’s actually touched my heart,” Celleri, who stepped down from his perch on one of the floats to grab a sip of coffee, said.

Jacqueline Guaman, the Township’s deputy clerk who is of Ecuadorian descent, has been one of the driving forces behind the event since 2020 when Belleville hosted its first Three Kings Day — a holiday especially popular in Spain and Latin American countries, where Dia de las Reyes is commemorated by giving gifts to children.

“By incorporating La Befana into our annual Three Kings Day celebration, we continue to show that Belleville embraces the cultures and customs of the people who call this town home,” Mayor Michael A. Melham said.

Or as Deputy Mayor Vinny Cozzarelli put it, “This event brings out the best in Belleville and it brings out a lot of community pride.”

The gift-givers at the end of the drive-thru event displayed great teamwork. Need a gift for a 6-year-old girl? A 14-year-old boy? An infant? They were quick to respond with a toy, a big smile and a “Happy Three Kings Day!”

“What impresses me was seeing the community come together,” said Belleville native Ines Rosales, who is the traffic anchor for Fox 5 New York. “Growing up here, Belleville High School Class of 2000, you see this community just comes in stronger every year. My parents are still here and I visit them and it’s great to still be a part of it.”

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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.