Epiphany is a traditional Christian feast that is celebrated on January 6 each year by most people of the Christian community. However, the Churches that follow the Julian calendar system observe the day on January 19 to cover the period difference of 13 days between the Julian calendar and the modern day Gregorian calendar.
Epiphany marks the day that Jesus Christ was revealed to the world as the son of God by the three wise men (Magi) who visited baby Jesus and baptized him.
The term Epiphany has been derived from the Greek word “epiphaneia” which literally translated means “to appear” or “to manifest”.
The origin of Epiphany has been attributed to the Eastern Christian Churches who celebrated the incarnation of Jesus Christ on this day. The celebrations commemorated the birth of Christ, the visit of the Magi and also Jesus’ childhood leading up to his Baptism in Jordan by John the Baptist. The date of Epiphany was fixed to be on the January 6th pretty early in the history.
However, Western Christians have often attributed the day to be “Revelation (of Jesus) to the Gentiles” as mentioned in Luke where Gentiles refer to every non-Jewish person in the world. The Biblical Magi are considered to be non Jewish and represent all non-Jewish persons of the world, and it is on this day that they paid homage to Baby Jesus accepting His supremacy. The earliest evidence of the celebration of Epiphany is found in 361 AD.
In 385 AD a pilgrim by the name of Egeria or Silvia described about the celebrations of Epiphany in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. On December 25, 380 AD, the records find St. Gregory of Nazianzus to be referring to this day as the “Theophania” leading to the alternative name of the Feast the “Theophany”, a day that establishes the Nativity of Christ. According to the version of St. John Cassian the Egyptian monasteries celebrated the Nativity and Baptism of Christ on this day even in the beginning of 5th century.
Celebrations around the world:
A wide array of customs is involved in the traditional celebrations of Epiphany around the world.
- Argentina: Known as "Día de los Reyes", this is the day when Christmas décor is traditionally put away. Children leave their shoes by the door and grass and water for the camel of the Wise Men of the East who are expected to leave them a present.
- Bulgaria: Known as “Bogoyavlenie”, on this day a priest throws a wooden cross to the sea amidst drum rolls and bagpipes, while young men race to retrieve it. It is considered honorable to attempt to retrieve the cross and the one who manages to do that is said to have a blessed year.
- England: The English traditions include mumming plays and also drinking wassail (cider). The Yule log is kept burning in the hearths till this day and the charcoal left is then kept aside to kindle the Yule log in the coming year. Spicy food items are served on this day to honor the costly spices that the Magi brought along with them. The cooks also often served thirteen types of jam tarts as a symbol of luck. In ancient times playing practical jokes on each other was also part of the celebrations. Another tradition is the King Cake – a cake that would contain a baked bean – when the cake is cut and served, whoever gets the baked bean is treated like a King for the day.
- Finland: Known as Loppiainen, Epiphany is a day to focus on Missionary work. There exists an orthodox custom of dipping the cross three times to bless water. Traditional spice cookies called Piparkakut are served on this day – people are expected to take a cookie in their palm, break it into three pieces, make a silent wish before eating it – wishes thus made are believed to come true.
- France: The custom of King Cake prevails in France, but the charm included in the cake is generally a porcelain or plastic figurine. The youngest member present is asked to cut the cake.
- Egypt and Greece: In these places, the custom exists of blessing homes – priests visit the homes of respective parishioners to bless. The custom of throwing a cross in a water body by a priest for young men to compete and retrieve also exists – the one who retrieves the crossed is believed to have luck all round the year.
- Guadeloupe: Here Epiphany marks the beginning of the Kannaval or Carnival season that lasts till the night before Ash Wednesday. The peculiarity of the carnival is that the end of it is marked by “grand brilé Vaval” or cremation of the Carnival King amidst wails and cries of the assembled crowd.
- India: For the Christians in India, the day marks the end of the Christmas season and as such is celebrated in forms of fairs and parades held often in or around the Church grounds. Nativity Scenes are removed from homes and churches on this day. Parades often include three boys dressed as the Three Kings. In Cansaulim (South Goa) this carnival spirit is celebrated at a grand scale that attracts tourists from all over the world.
- Ireland: This is the day for the women of households to rest themselves after the heavy workload of Christmas season. As such the day is also known as Women’s Christmas or Little Christmas. Women get together for special meals on this day and often receive gifts from family members. Another tradition is to burn the Christmas holly used for décor purposes in the fireplace.
- Mexico: The night before Epiphany, figurines of the Three Wise Men are incorporated in the Nativity Scene, and it is believed that there men leave gifts near the shoes of children. Roscón de reyes is traditionally served on this day.
- Philippines: The long Christmas season comes to an end on the day of Epiphany. Three Men dressed as “Tatlonghari” ride along in neighborhoods distributing small token to children.
- Poland: Known as “Trzech Króli" (Three Kings), Epiphany is Poland marks the beginning of the season of Zapusty (Carnival), and also when Paczki (doughnuts) are served. Carnivals are held where three men are chosen to dress up in grandeur to represent the Three Kings who ride a camel or some other animal, and hand over small tokens to children. House blessing is also a tradition as is “King Cakes”.
- United States: Apart from the ritual of the King Cake, in some parts of the United States, Epiphany marked the beginning of the Carnival Season. The day is also considered apt for balls, dances and weddings. In some places a wooden Cross is thrown in a water body and young men are encouraged to find it – whoever does so is said to be blessed for the year. In some other parts costume parties are thrown and fruit cakes are baked to be tossed – competition are held on the best costume and also the farthest throw of the cake.
- Wales: Epiphany is known as Ystwyll in Wales. On this day a huge loaf of cake was prepared in which is hidden a ring. The cake is first cut into three to honor the shares of Christ, Virgin Mary and the Magi. Then the cake was shared among friends, family and neighbors. Whoever go the ring in his/her piece was elected the King/Queen and was allowed to preside of the day’s functions. Another tradition involves young men go hunting for Wren or Sparrow – the bird would then be kept in an ornamental cage and taken from home to home where people would give money or food for the sight.
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