Epiphany, Feast of the

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Epiphany, Feast of the (Twelfth Day, Three Kings' Day, Feast of Jordan)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: January 6
Where Celebrated: Europe, Great Britain, Greece, South America, and throughout the Christian world
Symbols and Customs: Befana, Blessing of the Waters, Frankincense, Gold, Kings' Cake, Magi, Myrrh, Star Boys, Star of Bethlehem
Related Holidays: Christmas, Twelfth Night


Epiphany is a Christian holiday related to the birth of Jesus Christ. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of ChrisEpiphany, Feast of the

tianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

The word Epiphany means "manifestation" or "showing." In the ancient Greek and Roman world, the term epiphaneia referred to an occasion on which a king or emperor made an official state visit to a city, showing himself publicly to his people. Early Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on this day-the day on which God manifested himself in human form. Nowadays Christians celebrate the Nativity on CHRISTMAS, December 25. But the original celebration took place on January 6, a date that coincided with an ancient Egyptian WINTER SOLSTICE festival held in honor of the sun god. As was often the case, early Church officials simply replaced this pagan festival with a Christian feast.

The feast of the Epiphany started out as a nativity celebration and stayed that way for more than 200 years. It came to Europe during the fourth century, at about the same time that the new feast of Christmas was being established in Rome. Once Christmas took hold, the purpose of Epiphany shifted. In the Western Church, it became a celebration of the adoration of the Magi-the day on which the three Wise Men reached the manger in Bethlehem and worshipped the Christ Child. In the East, it became a celebration of Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan, when the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove and proclaimed him the Son of God. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as either Three Kings' Day or the Feast of Jordan. Both represent occasions on which the divinity of Jesus was manifested or revealed to humankind.

For most of the Christian world today, Epiphany marks the end of the "Twelve Days of Christmas"-an appropriate time to take down Christmas decorations and greenery. In some countries, it is the day on which the last gift of the holiday season is exchanged.



According to an old Italian legend, Befana was sweeping her house when the Magi stopped by on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Christ Child. They invited her to come along with them, but she said she was too busy. She later regretted her decision and tried to catch up with them, but she got lost and never reached the manger. Every year she passes through Italy in her continuing search for the Bambino, hoping that each child to whom she brings gifts is the one she has been seeking.

The name Befana is actually a corruption of the Italian word for Epiphany. She is a cross between a witch and a fairy queen, and she plays much the same role in Italy as Santa Claus does in the United States. Children write letters to her, asking for specific presents. She slides down the chimney on Epiphany Eve and fills their socks and shoes with toys. If they misbehave, their parents threaten to tell La Befana to leave only pebbles, charcoal, or ashes. In most Italian cities and towns, young people gather in the streets on Epiphany to honor La Befana with trumpets, tambourines, drums, and tin horns-a survival, perhaps, of the pagan custom of scaring off demons with loud noises.

Blessing of the Waters

In the East, the custom of blessing the waters on Epiphany goes back to the holiday's origins as a commemoration of Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan. It is traditional there to bless both the baptismal water in the church and the waters of a nearby river or fountain. In Egypt, the Nile was blessed on this day for many centuries. The entire Christian population would plunge into its waters three times, then drive their cattle and other farm animals into the river. In Rome, the water that was blessed in the church on this day was believed to stay fresh all year.

The Blessing of the Waters remains an important symbolic act on Epiphany in all countries where the Greek Orthodox Church prevails. In Greece, the "Great Blessing" is an elaborate celebration in seaports and coastal towns, where people depend on the water for their livelihood. Sometimes a cross is thrown into the water and people dive after it, struggling to see who can bring it to the surface. After the cross has been recovered, the people take home some of the sanctified water to drink and to sprinkle around their homes and fields. The priest may bless a container of clean water before immersing a cross and raising it again, symbolizing the baptism of Christ. Holy water drawn on this day is used for baptisms and other sacraments throughout the year.

Some scholars believe that the practice of blessing the waters is actually a Christianized version of a primitive ritual designed to encourage rain by imitating a good drenching.


The sap of the frankincense tree dries into hard, yellowish-brown lumps of gum resin that in ancient times were burned as incense. The rising fumes may have Epiphany, Feast of the

offered worshippers a visual image of their prayers ascending to heaven, which would explain the widespread use of incense in churches. Frankincense is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testatment and was one of the four components of the sacred incense burned by the Jewish priests in the Sanctuary. Because of its close relationship with worship, the Magi's gift of frankincense has traditionally been interpreted as a recognition of Jesus' divinity. Because it was a luxury that was difficult to obtain and was affordable only by the rich, the Magi's gift of frankincense may also have signified their recognition of Jesus' great worth.


No other metal is named as frequently in the Bible as gold. It is most often referred to as a form of worldly wealth, but it also serves as a symbol of spiritual wealth. Gold was rarer in biblical times than it is today, and for the most part, only kings or the very wealthy possessed it. As one of the three gifts that the Magi offered to the baby Jesus, gold is most often interpreted as a symbol of Jesus' kingship or His spiritual authority.

Kings' Cake

Serving a cake in which a bean or charm has been hidden is an old Epiphany tradition that can be traced back to the large plum cake served at the ancient Roman SATURNALIA . Whoever found the bean hidden in his piece of plum cake was dubbed "King of the Bean" and ruled over the festivities for the next 12 days. The bean was considered a sacred vegetable in ancient times.

In France, where Epiphany is called Le Jour des Rois (Day of the Kings), the Galette des Rois or Kings' Cake is a puff pastry cake in which a bean (fève) has been concealed. Whoever finds it is crowned Roi de la Fève. If it's a girl, she becomes the Queen and must choose a King. It is customary to save a portion of the cake and set it aside for the Magi, a particular saint, or the Lord himself. This portion, called la part du bon Dieu, was usually given to the poor after the feast was over. The French Kings' Cake goes back at least as far as the thirteenth century, and similar customs can be found in Austria, Germany, Holland, England, and Canada. Sometimes a bean and a pea are hidden in the cake. The person who finds the pea is crowned Queen, with the bean going to the King. In Macedonia, a "St. Basil's Cake" is served on New Year's Eve, with a coin and a cross of green twigs baked inside. Whoever finds either one will prosper during the coming year.

The first Kings' Cakes were made of flour, honey, ginger, and pepper; some were ordinary plum cakes. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, they were elaborately decorated confections with brightly colored figures made of sugar or plaster. In England under the reign of King George IV, these very expensive cakes were displayed in every confectioner's shop in London.


The Three Kings or Magi who play such an important role in the story of Jesus' birth are largely fictitious creations. They are believed to have been wise men famous for their knowledge of astrology and astronomy. On the night of Jesus' birth, they noticed a star shining in the west, more brightly than any star they had ever seen before. They decided to follow it, and when it stood still over Bethlehem, they found the Christ Child in the manger (see STAR OF BETHLEHEM ).

The Bible doesn't say anything about how many Wise Men there were, what they were named, or where they came from. The word "Magi" comes from the Latin meaning "magician" or "astrologer," and the earliest pictures of the Wise Men show them dressed quite differently from the kings' robes in which they began to appear from the tenth century onward. Their names-Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar-were not standardized until the Middle Ages, and in early Christian paintings and mosaics there are often as many as 12 of them. But the Bible says that they offered three gifts to the Christ Child, which is probably why their number was eventually fixed at three.

Caspar, who is young and beardless with a ruddy complexion, is said to have been the king of Tarsus (southern Turkey), the land of MYRRH . Melchior, often depicted as an old man with white hair and a long beard, is said to have been the king of Arabia, the land of GOLD . Balthasar, of dark complexion with a heavy beard, came from Saba (near modern-day Yemen), a land where FRANKINCENSE flowed from the trees. Together the Three Kings symbolize the three races of humankind, descended from Noah's sons Ham, Shem, and Japheth.

Legend has it that many years after their trip to Bethlehem, the Magi were visited by St. Thomas, who instructed them in the ways of Christianity and baptized them. They were then ordained to the priesthood and later made bishops. At the end of their lives, the Star of Bethlehem appeared one more time, and they were reunited. Their relics were brought to Constantinople in the fifth century, transferred to Milan a hundred years later, and eventually deposited in Cologne, Germany. Their shrine there is a popular destination for pilgrimages.

In Italy and Spanish-speaking countries, toy store employees can often be seen dressed up as the Magi on Epiphany Day, delivering gifts to children. In Madrid, groups of people roam about on Epiphany Eve with bells and pots and pans, carrying torches and tall ladders to help them see whether the Three Kings are on their way.


The sap of the myrrh tree dries into hard, reddish-brown lumps of gum resin. Although unfamiliar to us today, in ancient times myrrh was a precious and much Epiphany, Feast of the

sought-after substance that was most commonly used as a medicine, particularly for treating sores in the mouth, infections, coughs, and worms. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus was offered a cup of wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23), which suggests that it was also used as a painkiller. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus' body was treated with myrrh and aloe before being wrapped in cloth for burial (John 19:39).

Myrrh was highly valued as an ingredient in perfume and incense as well. Although it has a pleasant smell, it has a bitter taste; in fact, the English word "myrrh" comes from the Hebrew and Arabic terms for "bitter." The Hebrews made myrrh one of the primary ingredients of the holy oil with which they anointed their priests and the sacred objects in their temples. Like FRANKINCENSE , it came from Arabia and was considered a luxury affordable only by the wealthy.

Due to its bitterness, the gift of myrrh that the Magi brought to the infant Jesus has often been interpreted as a symbol of the hardships that He would suffer in His adult life. The fact that myrrh was used in embalming has led some to assert that myrrh represents Jesus' humanity. Another interpretation suggests that because it had so many medicinal uses, myrrh must represent Jesus' role as a healer of body and spirit. Finally, it might be argued that the gift of myrrh symbolizes Jesus' role as a Jewish religious leader, since it was a main ingredient in the holy oil used to anoint Jewish high priests.

Star Boys

In parts of central Europe and Scandinavia, troupes of costumed children, known as "star boys," entertain their neighbors with Christmas carols and dramas on Epiphany. One member of the group carries a long pole, from which a bright star, representing the STAR OF BETHLEHEM , dangles. Children dressed as the MAGI follow the star, sometimes accompanied by other figures associated with the Nativity. In some areas, a child dressed as Judas collects the coins that onlookers offer in return for the children's performances. In many areas, however, neighbors offer the group food and drink rather than money.

The yearly trek of the star boys reminds people of the journey of the Magi and their final arrival at the stable in Bethlehem on Epiphany. Researchers speculate that this custom evolved out of medieval Nativity plays reenacting the story of the Three Kings.

Star of Bethlehem

In the Gospel according to Matthew (2:2-14), we learn that an unusually bright star guided the MAGI to Bethlehem. The Three Kings interpreted this star as a sign that a great person was about to be born, and they followed it to the place directly above which it shone. There, in Bethlehem, they recognized Jesus as the newborn king whose birth the star foretold.

Did such a star really appear in the heavens at the time of Jesus' birth? Biblical scholars and astronomers have never been able to come up with a definitive answer to this question because the two most important pieces of information necessary to solve the mystery are themselves unclear. First, Matthew's account of the story provides only a vague mention of the star. Second, the exact year of Jesus' birth remains in doubt, making it difficult to scan astronomical records from the time and search for unusual happenings in the sky. Matthew might have been referring to a comet, although comets were generally thought to herald disaster in ancient times. The Magi might have been spurred into action by a conjunction- two or more planets appearing to draw very near each other in the sky-or they might have witnessed an exploding star, or nova. Many Christians feel that a scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem is not needed, since the story of the Star is a symbolic rather than a historical account-an attempt to convey spiritual truths rather than material facts.

Whatever truth there is to the story, the star is an important symbol of both CHRISTMAS and Epiphany. Stars often decorate the tops of Christmas trees and appear in other Christmas decorations. Old Christmas customs, such as the cavorting of the STAR BOYS , also make use of this symbol. Finally, it is common for modern planetariums to present special programs during the holiday season that explore the many theories about the Star of Bethlehem.


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Christian Resource Institute www.cresourcei.org/cyepiph.html

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia www.newadvent.org/cathen/05504c.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009