Epiphany isn’t as widely celebrated in the US as Christmas.
But in many regions, this day is just as important, marking the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and honoring the Wise Men, also called The Three Kings.
As Epiphany ends the Twelve Days of Christmas cycle, it’s celebrated on January 6th in the Catholic church. Orthodox Christians, who still follow the Gregorian calendar, celebrate it on January 19th.
The Bible states that Wise Men came to visit baby Jesus in Bethlehem from far lands in the east following a prophecy.
They brought gifts and refused to disclose Jesus’ location to King Herod, who ruled in Judea at that time.
While the Wise Men are often called The Three Kings, there’s no evidence they ruled any lands or that there were only three of them.
Even the date of the story can’t be known for sure. Historians had to speculate on this, as the Bible doesn’t feature such information.
Still, the story of Epiphany reveals Jesus to the world as Messiah and shows the dedication and bravery of the Wise Men.
Therefore, this special date has deep symbolism and significance, deserving more attention.
What Is Epiphany?
Epiphany, also known as the Feast of The Three Kings, is the ending day of the Christmas holidays.
On this day, people remember the three Wise Men who visited Mary and Joseph with gifts when Jesus was born. In some churches, Epiphany also marks the day when Jesus was Baptized and became a teacher.
The word “epiphany” is derived from the Greek word “epiphainein” or Latin “epiphania,” translating as “revelation.”
Thus, this term makes sense both regarding the visit of the Wise Men and Christ’s Baptism, as in both cases, he was revealed to the world.
In Orthodox Christianity, Epiphany is known as The Feast of The Holy Theophany. The meaning of the holiday isn’t any different from that in the Catholic church.
In Spain, the holiday is called The Festival of The Three Magic Kings.
History of Three Wise Men
Epiphany is dedicated to the memory of the Three Wise Men, but what was so special about them? The story starts in Bethlehem of Judea, where Jesus was born.
At that time, Judea was ruled by King Herod the Great. The Bible states that King Herod attempted to find baby Jesus and kill him, fearing that he would lose his power with the coming of God’s son.
As he couldn’t find Jesus, Herod killed every infant boy in Bethlehem. But that’s not the beginning of the story.
How did King Herod find out about Jesus, you may wonder?
The Bible narrates that the Wise Men came to Jerusalem from the east, saying, “Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
King Herod was troubled by this information, gathered all priests in the area, and asked where to find the Messiah. And the priests told him that the prophecy says Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
King Herod has tricked the Wise Men. He told them to find baby Jesus and bring him the word so that the King could come to worship the Messiah, too. And so, the Wise Men went to Bethlehem, guided by a star, and found baby Jesus.
The wise men brought gifts to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Such gifts may seem odd for a baby, but each of them had meaning.
Gold is associated with Kings, and Jesus is considered the King of the Kings by Christians.
Frankincense symbolized that people would worship the Messiah.
Myrrh, in turn, is often used to conceal the smell of dead bodies. Christians believe this gift indicates that the wise men knew that Jesus would suffer and die for our sins.
At night, the Wise Men saw a dream warning that they shouldn’t disclose Jesus’ location to King Herod.
For this reason, they chose a different route to get back to their home country. And upon finding this out, King Herod told his people to go to Bethlehem and kill every baby boy there.
Who Are The Wise Men
The Wise Men are also often called The Three Kings or Magi. However, the Bible doesn’t indicate whether they really were kings or how many men there were.
Historians speculate that the Wise Men could have arrived from the regions of modern Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen. During that time, Yemen was ruled by Jews, so this theory makes perfect sense.
Their number is guessed by the number of gifts they brought. But since the men were wealthy, they could have brought several servants along.
One thing is sure: The Three Kings were men of great learning, as “Magi” is derived from Greek “magos.”
“Magos,” in turn, comes from the Persian word “Magupati.” Persians called so priests who knew astrology and astronomy. That’s why the Wise Men managed to find the way by a star.
Twelve Days of Christmas
Epiphany marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas that start on Christmas Day. Each of these days has a special meaning.
It’s no secret that Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Jesus. December 26th, in turn, is called Saint Stephen’s Day. This is because Saint Stephen was the first known Christian martyr.
December 27th is the third day of Christmas and is dedicated to Apostle Saint John, who was one of Christ’s friends and disciples.
On December 28th, Christians celebrate the Feast on the Holy Innocents, remembering the baby boys killed by King Herod when he was trying to find infant Jesus to kill him.
December 29th, the fifth day of Christmas, is dedicated to Saint Thomas Becket, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He was a martyr killed for questioning King’s authority over the Christian church. December 30th is the day of Saint Egwin of Worcester.
The New Year’s Eve, December 31st, is also known as Silvester, in the name of Pope Sylvester I, who was one of the first Christian popes back in the fourth century. January 1st celebrates the memory of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
On January 2nd, Christians remember Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzen. Then, on January 3rd, Jesus was officially named in the Jewish Temple.
January 4th is the 11th day of Christmas and is dedicated to the first American saint, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Finally, the last day of Christmas is Epiphany Eve. This day also is dedicated to the memory of the first American Bishop, Saint John Neumann, who lived in the 19th century.
Epiphany traditions differ from country to country. In the US, this day is celebrated by eating the King’s Cake.
It’s often made in a wreath shape, symbolizing the circuitous route Wise Men had to take to avoid King Herod.
The King’s Cake is a cinnamon pastry often filled with jam or cream cheese and covered with sugar.
Traditionally, a small Jesus figurine or a bean is hidden inside the cake. The person who gets a piece with the figurine or bean should make the cake for the next Epiphany.
In New Orleans, Christmas trees are taken down on Epiphany. On some of them, Christmas ornaments are replaced with purple, gold, and green decorations, and the Christmas trees turn into Mardi Gras trees.
This carnival celebrates the soon arrival of spring and originates from the Roman pagan festival Saturnalia, honoring the God of agriculture Saturn.
While the tradition of eating King’s Cake is fun, other Epiphany customs are more religious. People light up candles in their homes or churches, attend Masses, and pray.
Epiphany Traditions in Other Countries
Epiphany has a special significance and is celebrated just as festive as Christmas in many countries.
So, in Spain, during the Festival of The Three Magic Kings, kids receive gifts -not from Santa as for Christmas, but from the Three Kings.
Italian children also get gifts not only for Christmas but also on Epiphany. But instead of the Three Kings, the gifts are distributed by La Befana, a kind witch originating from the Bible.
Traditional Spanish food for Epiphany is Roscon, which is a ring-shaped sweet roll, typically filled with chocolate or marmalade.
In the Catalonia region, Roscons are usually filled with marzipan. The French also prefer sweet pastry for Epiphany, but instead of a roll, they eat Galette des Rois, a flat almond cake.
The traditional Epiphany food in Mexico is called Rosca de Reyes, which translates as Three Kings Cake.
It usually has a figurine of a crown or baby Jesus is hidden inside, and whoever gets a piece with it is believed to be lucky until the next Epiphany.
Austrians have a unique Epiphany tradition. They write a special sign with chalk on their front door, believing it protects the house.
The symbol is comprised of the current year split in half with abbreviations of the Wise Men names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, in the middle.
Belgium Epiphany traditions slightly resemble Halloween or the Russian festival Koleda. Children wear the Three Wise Men costumes, sing songs, and go asking for sweets and money from door to door. Polish children do the same but dressing up is uncommon.
Epiphany is known as “Nollaig na mBan” in Ireland, which translates as Women’s Christmas from Irish.
While such a name may seem odd, Irish women are very pleased with it as they can get a day off, and men do all housework.
In Eastern Europe and Russia, people go to church to bless water on Epiphany. This water is then used throughout all year in various church rituals.
In many churches, this can’t be done on any other day. Orthodox Christians are also often baptized on this day.
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