Epiphany is the last day of the Christmas season and traditionally falls at the end of the 12 days of Christmas. For Roman Catholics and many other Western Christians, that means Epiphany is always observed on January 6. (Some Eastern Orthodox churches observe Christmas Eve around January 7, with Epiphany 12 days later on January 19.)
Christians celebrate the Epiphany because it commemorates the time when the Magi (also known as the Three Wise Men, or the Three Kings) were led to Bethlehem to visit the baby Jesus in the manger. They presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and celebrated the birth of the Christ child. This is why Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day.
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Today, Epiphany is celebrated by many Christians with feasting, wine drinking and gift giving as the celebrants transition out of the Christmas season into ordinary time. There's a great deal of variation in how Epiphany is observed, however. Different countries, different churches and different families have their own ways of celebrating this sacred holiday.
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 their lines, receives light from the central candle and sits down.
In some places, festive Twelfth Night celebrations are also held on January 5 or January 6. Notably, New Orleans has raucous Twelfth Night traditions including parades and masked balls because this day marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras season.
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 "No. 2" over the doorway; 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 Balthazar. 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.
For Irish women, Epiphany is a double celebration!
In Ireland, an observance called Little Christmas or Women's Christmas also happens on January 6. Historically, women would spend the day visiting with one another and relaxing after all the cooking, cleaning, decorating and other traditionally female labor of the Christmas season was finished.
Enjoying 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 at this time, 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 or trinkets.
Eating the King's cake
In many countries, the feast day includes a delicious Epiphany cake ("galette des rois") 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 Reyes" is made of sweet egg bread and is typically layered with frosting and fruit slices.
A tiny bean or plastic baby figurine representing the Christ child is baked into these cakes. When the cake is carved into pieces, whoever finds the bean or baby is crowned king of the feast.
From prayers to feasting, Epiphany is a full-day celebration for many devout Christians—a fitting end to a festive Christmas season!