How to Celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany

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Candles lit in church.
Candles lit in church. (Image: RadioUran/iStock/Getty Images)

Epiphany is the last day of the Christmas season and traditionally falls on the 12th day after Christmas, during the first week of January. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it’s also known as the theophany and commemorates the descending of a dove onto Jesus at his baptism, while in the West, it commemorates the appearance of the Magi to the Christ child. The day is celebrated in countries like Germany, Ireland and India with feasting and wine-drinking as the celebrants transition out of the Christmas season into ordinary time.

The Feast of Lights

Some church congregations choose to commemorate Epiphany with a feast of lights. This may take the form of a simple candle-lighting service in which a single, central candle, representing the light of Christ, illuminates all other candles. It may also take the form of a pageant in which each person dresses up as a character in history who helped to spread the light of the Gospel. Each character comes forward to recite his lines, receives light from the central candle and sits down.

Blessing the Threshold

In some church traditions, families gather at the door of their home on Epiphany to bless the home for the following year. One person writes over the doorway No. 2, then the letters C, M and B, and finally the last two digits of the current year. Between each letter and number is a plus sign, signifying the cross. The letters C, M, and B represent the names that tradition has given to the three wise men -- Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They’re also the first three words of the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat,” which means, “Christ bless this house.” Then a brief prayer or liturgy is recited.

Befana's Gifts

In some European countries, Epiphany once functioned as a kind of Halloween and Christmas rolled into one. But while children no longer go trick-or-treating on this holiday, parents still give gifts to their children. In Italy, families tell the story of Befana, an old woman who was approached by the wise men seeking the baby Jesus. At first refusing to help them, she realized her mistake too late: She’s now doomed to wander the world until the end of time trying in vain to find him. Like St. Nicholas, she flies through the air on the eve of Epiphany carrying gifts for good children. In modern times, “naughty” children are sometimes given “coal” in the form of chocolate candy.

King's Cake

In many countries, the Feast of Epiphany includes a delicious cake that is cut into pieces and served to everyone present. The cake’s ingredients differ from country to country. In France, the cake is a puff pastry filled with "frangipane" or sweet bun. In Spain and Mexico, the "rosca de royas" is made of sweet egg bread and is typically layered with frosting and fruit slices. Inside these cakes, a tiny bean is hidden representing the Christ child. When the cake is carved into pieces, whoever finds the bean is crowned king of the feast.

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