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Epiphany (ĭpĭfˈənē) [Gr.,=showing], a prime Christian feast, celebrated Jan. 6, called also Twelfth Day or Little Christmas. Its eve is Twelfth Night. It commemorates three events—the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1), the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem (Mat. 2), and the miracle at Cana (John 2). In his baptism Jesus' sonship to God was manifested to the world; in the visit of the Wise Men he was manifested as king to the Gentiles; and at the marriage feast at Cana his power to perform miracles (a divine prerogative) was shown. In popular celebration the feast is far more ancient than Christmas. Technically it is more important than Christmas, ranking after Easter and Pentecost. It is a day of gifts in many countries. In the Eastern Church the waters are blessed on this day. The word epiphany means a manifestation, usually of divine power. Thus the actual appearance of God (as in the burning bush) or a moment of divine revelation may be called an epiphany.
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Blessing of the Waters Day,

Día de los Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day),

Feast of Baptism, Feast of Jordan, Feast of Lights,

Feast of the Three Kings, Fête des Rois,

Le Jour de Rois (Kings' Day), Night of Destiny,

Old Christmas Day, Perchtennacht, Theophania,

Timkat, Twelfth Day, Twelfth Night

Epiphany is a Christian feast day celebrated on January 6. The holiday commemorates the revelation of Jesus' divinity to those around him. In Western Christianity, the observance of Epiphany focuses on the adoration of the Magi. In Eastern Christianity the holiday emphasizes Jesus' baptism. Over the centuries European folklore has assigned numerous legends and customs to Epiphany, some of which bear little direct relationship to the life of Jesus. In many countries Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season.

The Meaning of Epiphany

The word "epiphany" comes from the Greek term epiphaneia, meaning "manifestation," "appearance," or "showing forth." In the ancient world, the term designated occasions on which visiting kings or emperors appeared before the people. The writers of the Gospels used this term to describe occasions on which Jesus'divinity revealed itself to those around him. Ancient writers applied another Greek word, theophaneia, or "theophany," to the appearance of a god before human beings. Early Christians also used the word theophany in reference to their Epiphany celebrations. This usage continued in the Greek world, where today the Greek Orthodox Church refers to Epiphany as Theophania. Moreover, Eastern Orthodox Christians sometimes call Epiphany the "Feast of Lights." This name reflects their belief that baptism confers spiritual illumination.

The History of Epiphany

Early Christians were celebrating Epiphany before they began to observe Christmas. The first celebrations of Epiphany occurred in second-century Egypt. Like Christmas, the date chosen for Epiphany has no firm historical or scriptural grounding. Some scholars believe that January 6 was selected by the earliest celebrants in order to upstage a winter solstice festival held in honor of an Egyptian sun god on that date. Indeed, according to one ancient Egyptian calendar, winter solstice fell on January 6. Some ancient Egyptians recognized that day as the birthday of the Egyptian god Osiris. Other sacred events held on that day include a festival commemorating the birth of the god Aeon from his virgin mother, Kore.

From the second century onward, scattered celebrations of Epiphany occurred among various groups of Christians, although no consensus emerged as to what events the holiday commemorated. Christian liturgy identifies four instances in which Jesus' divine nature manifested itself on earth: at his birth, at the adoration of the Magi, at his baptism, and when he changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Early Epiphany celebrations honored any one or more of these events. By the third century most Eastern Christians were celebrating Epiphany. By the late fourth century most Western Christians had also adopted the feast. Eastern and Western celebrations evolved around different themes, however. When the Western Church designated December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity in the mid-fourth century, Western Epiphany celebrations consolidated around the revelation of Jesus' divinity to the Magi. When the Eastern Church embraced Christmas, between 380 and 430 the celebration of both the Nativity and the adoration of the Magi. Thus, Eastern Epiphany observances remained dedicated to the commemoration of Jesus'baptism.

In the Middle Ages, popular western European Epiphany celebrations focused on the Magi's journey. People began to refer to the Magi as kings and saints and to Epiphany as the "Feast of the Three Kings." Festivities of the day included Nativity plays, many of which featured the story of the Three Kings. Another boisterous medieval ceremony, the Feast of Fools, was also sometimes performed in churches on Epiphany.

In 1336 the city of Milan, Italy, hosted a splendid procession and play to commemorate the Feast of the Three Kings. Three men, sumptuously dressed as kings and surrounded by an entire retinue of costumed pages, body guards, and attendants, paraded through the city streets following a gold star which hung before them (see also Star of Bethlehem). At one juncture, they encountered King Herod and his scribes. The Wise Men asked where Jesus was to be born, and King Herod, after consulting the scribes, answered "Bethlehem." The kings and their followers continued on to St. Eustorgius Church, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh ceremoniously before them. The crowd spilled into the church, preceded by trumpeters, horn players, donkeys, apes, and other animals. To one side of the high altar awaited Mary and the Christ child, in a manger complete with ox and ass. Although we might consider this noisy and colorful Epiphany celebration unseemly, medieval Europeans enjoyed this mixture of ceremony, carnival, and religion.

In Spanish-speaking countries today, Epiphany retains this strong association with the Magi and is called Día de los Tres Reyes, or Three Kings Day. The French call the holiday Le Jour de Rois or Fête des Rois: Kings'Day or the Feast of the Kings (see also France, Christmas in). The British sometimes refer to the holiday as Twelfth Day, and the evening before as Twelfth Night, since it occurs twelve days after Christmas. Twelfth Day marks the end of the Christmas season, also known as Twelfthtide or the Twelve Days of Christmas. Since late medieval times the British had enjoyed feasts and masquerades on Twelfth Night, but these celebrations have declined since the nineteenth century.

Folklore and Customs

In Italy and Spanish-speaking countries, children receive gifts on Epiphany rather than on Christmas. Furthermore, in Spanish-speaking countries, the Three Kings, Los Reyes Magos, deliver the presents rather than Santa Claus. On Epiphany Eve children leave a shoe on their doorstep or balcony, along with some straw for the Magi's camels. In the morning they find that the grateful Wise Men have filled their shoes with treats. In Italy La Befana, an old woman from an Italian legend, distributes presents on Epiphany. La Befana was too busy to aid the Magi on their journey to worship the newborn Jesus. As a punishment for her lack of piety, she now wanders the world during the Christmas season bringing gifts to children. In Russian folklore, a woman named Baboushka plays a similar role. Berchta (or Perchta), a more fearsome female figure, appears on Epiphany Eve in Germany and Austria. She punishes wrongdoers and rewards wellbehaved children. In these countries Epiphany is also known as Perchtennacht. In Syria and Lebanon Epiphany may be called "The Night of Destiny" (Lailat al-Qadr), a name it shares with a Muslim holiday. In these lands the Christmas gift bringer is a mule or a camel.

In Sweden, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, and Poland, groups of costumed children known as the star boys parade through the streets of town singing songs or performing plays about the Three Kings on Epiphany Eve.

An old German tradition encourages people to bring salt, water, chalk and incense to church on Epiphany Eve to be blessed. Upon returning home, they sprinkle the blessed water over their fields, animals, and homes, and cook with the salt. They burn the incense and waft the smoke throughout their homes as a defense against evil spirits. In both Germany and Austria, the initials CMB - which stand for the names attributed to the Three Kings in legend, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar - may be written over doorways with blessed chalk in order to protect the house.

In many European countries, such as France, Austria, Germany, and England, festive meals were once planned for Epiphany featuring a special cake. A coin, pea, bean, or tiny china doll was baked inside the cake, and the person who found the object in their slice was considered "king" or "queen" of the feast (see also King of the Bean; Twelfth Night). In England, tradition reserves the unwelcome chore of removing and storing Christmas decorations for Twelfth Day.

Religious Customs

In both Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, water is blessed on Epiphany and distributed to the faithful for use in home religious observances. Among Orthodox Christians, Epiphany is also known as Blessing of the Waters Day. In past centuries priests blessed Egypt's Nile River. Both Christians and Muslims would then immerse themselves in the now holy waters, often driving their animals into the river as well to share in the blessing. In Palestine, the River Jordan was blessed. Thousands of worshipers then submerged themselves up to three times in the holy currents. Many Orthodox parishes observe similar Epiphany rites today. For example, the congregation may walk to a nearby river or other body of water which the priest then blesses. In some parts of the world, congregants joyfully immerse themselves in the blessed water. Another popular Orthodox observance involves tossing a crucifix into the water. The first to retrieve the cross is often thought to acquire good luck for the coming year.

The blessing of homes is a Roman Catholic ritual connected with Epiphany. The pastor blesses each room of the house using holy water and incense, and recites special prayers. Then he writes the year and the initials CMB inside the door with blessed chalk. In the year 1999, for example, he would write 19 CMB 99. Orthodox priests also bless homes on Epiphany.

Epiphany is not only a Christian feast day, but may also be considered a season of the Christian year encompassing the period between January 6 and the beginning of Lent. The length of this period varies in accordance with the day on which Easter falls each year.

Further Reading

Bassett, Paul M. "Epiphany." In Everett Ferguson, ed. Encyclopedia of EarlyChristianity. Volume 1. New York: Garland, 1997. Bellenir, Karen, ed. Religious Holidays and Calendars: An Encyclopedic Hand-book. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Chambers, Robert. "January 6 - Twelfth-Day." In his The Book of Days. Volume 1. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Gwynne, Walker. The Christian Year: Its Purpose and History. 1917. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1993. McArthur, A. Allan. The Evolution of the Christian Year. Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, 1953. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, Md.: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. 46 Days of Christmas. New York: Coward-McCann, 1960. Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, contains an article by the Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald: articles/article7113.asp
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the 12 chief Christian holidays, celebrated by the Orthodox Church on January 6 (19). The church connects the day with the gospel.myth about the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. It is often accompanied by the ritual of the blessing of water (borrowed from paganism) and by fortunetelling.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Epiphany (Germany) (Dreikšnigsfest)

January 6
Boys dressed up as the Three Kings go from house to house caroling on Epiphany in Germany. Because they take with them a long pole from which dangles a star, they are known as Starsingers, or Sternsinger ( see also Epiphany in Sweden and New Year's Day in Germany). In western and southern Germany, salt and chalk are consecrated in church on this day. The salt is given to animals to lick, while the chalk is used to write the initials of the Three Kings— C.M.B. for Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—over the house and stable doors to protect the household from danger and to keep out the evil spirits.
According to folk belief, a mysterious witch known as Frau Perchta (also Berchta or Bertha) wanders about the earth causing trouble between Christmas and Epiphany. In Upper Bavaria, according to tradition, peasants wearing wooden masks go around cracking whips and symbolically driving out Perchta, who is actually an ancient German fertility goddess and custodian of the dead. It is for this reason that Epiphany is also known as Perchtennacht . The Perchta masks, which can be terrifying in their ugliness, are often handed down from one generation to the next.
See also Perchtenlauf
BkFest-1937, p. 131
EncyChristmas-2003, pp. 56, 221, 282
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 9
FestWestEur-1958, p. 54
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 17

Celebrated in: Germany

Epiphany (Labrador)
January 6
The naluyuks that visit children on Epiphany in Labrador, Canada, are a combination of Santa Claus and the bogeyman. They go from house to house on January 6, their bodies covered in bearskin or an oversized coat with a mask over their faces and a stick in their hands along with a bag of gifts that has been donated ahead of time by parents. Children regard the coming of the naluyuks with great trepidation; Eskimo parents tell tales of a bogeyman figure, the naluyuk, to frighten them into good behavior.
When the naluyuks enter the house, the children perform a Christmas carol or hymn for them, and the naluyuks show their approval by pounding their sticks on the floor. After the singing, the children are asked various questions regarding their behavior over the past year. If the naluyuks are pleased with the answers, they hand each child a gift from their bag.
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 16

Epiphany (Portugal) (D’a de Reis)
January 6
Epiphany plays and pageants are common in Portugal, particularly in rural areas of the country. Bands of carolers go from house to house singing and begging for gifts. Sometimes family groups visit one another, standing at the door and asking to come in so they can sing to the Christ Child. After they sing their carols, the guests are entertained with wines and sweets.
It is common for parents to give parties for their children on Epiphany Day. The Epiphany cake, or bolo-rei, is a favorite tradition at these parties. Baked in the shape of a crown or ring, the cake contains many small trinkets and a single dried bean. Whoever finds the bean is crowned king of the party and must promise to make the cake the following year. At adult parties, the person who finds the bean is expected to pay for the following year's cake.
Epiphany is also a time when the traditional Portuguese dances known as mouriscadas and paulitos are performed. The latter is an elaborate stick dance in which the dancers, who are usually male but may be dressed as women, manipulate sticks or staves (substitutes for swords) in two opposing lines.
Portuguese National Tourist Office
590 Fifth Ave., 4th Fl.
New York, NY 10036
800-767-8842 or 212-354-4403; fax: 212-764-6137
BkFest-1937, p. 266
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 346, 1082
FestWestEur-1958, p. 160

Celebrated in: Portugal

Epiphany (Russia)
January 19
On January 19th, members of the Russian Orthodox Church ritually bathe in a river or lake. The day marks the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan, an event called the Epiphany. Bathing outside on that day, Orthodox Catholics believe, washes away sin. As believers cut holes in the ice with chainsaws and plunge into the frigid water, priests chant prayers to bless the water. Altars and crosses made of ice and snow are sometimes constructed near the bathing site.
Authorities advise against the practice, especially in the freezing temperatures of a Russian winter. Still, in 2006, some 2,000 persons were said to have participated in the ritual in the Moscow area alone.
Cathedral of the Epiphany in Elokhovo
Spartakovskaya ul. 15
Moscow 107066 Russia

Celebrated in: Russian Federation

Epiphany (Spain) (D’a de los Reyes Magos)
January 6
Epiphany is the day when Spanish children receive their gifts, and it is the Three Kings, rather than Santa Claus, who bring them. On Epiphany Eve the children fill their shoes with straw or grain for the Three Kings' horses to eat and place them on balconies or by the front door. The next morning, they find cookies, sweets, and gifts in their place.
In many cities throughout Spain, the Three Kings make a spectacular entry on Epiphany Eve, to the accompaniment of military bands and drummers in medieval dress. The Kings themselves usually ride horses, although in the Canary Islands they arrive by camel. One custom was for groups of people to walk out toward the city boundary to meet the Kings, some carrying ladders and some making a huge racket with horns, bells, and drums. Occasionally, those with ladders would pause in the procession while someone climbed a ladder to look for the Kings.
Tourist Office of Spain
666 Fifth Ave., 35th Fl.
New York, NY 10103
212-265-8822; fax: 212-265-8864
BkFest-1937, p. 297
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 1063
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 733
FestWestEur-1958, p. 188

Celebrated in: Spain

Epiphany (Sweden) (Trettondag Jul)
January 6
The Night of the Three Holy Kings was celebrated in Sweden during the Middle Ages with ecclesiastical folk plays commemorating the Magi's finding of Jesus in the manger. It is still customary for Stjärngossar, or Star Boys ( see also Epiphany in Germany), to present pageants dramatizing the journey of the Three Kings to Bethlehem. They wear white robes and cone-shaped hats with pompons and astronomical symbols on them. They carry paper star lanterns on long poles, illuminated from within by candles.
In rural areas, the Star Boys go from house to house, accompanied by other children dressed in costumes to resemble biblical characters, singing folk songs and hymns. The group almost always includes someone dressed up as Judas, wearing a huge false nose and carrying a purse or money bag jingling with the 30 pieces of silver he received for betraying Jesus.
BkFest-1937, p. 307
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 735
FestWestEur-1958, p. 210
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 18

Celebrated in: Sweden

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.


the manifestation of a supernatural or divine reality


a Christian festival held on Jan. 6, commemorating, in the Western Church, the manifestation of Christ to the Magi and, in the Eastern Church, the baptism of Christ
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005