Epiphany is a Christian feasting holiday celebrated on January 6th, although some Eastern countries celebrate on January 19th under the Julian calendar. It is sometimes called Three King’s Day in the United States. Although the holiday is specific to the Christian religion, different parts of the world vary in their focus of celebration. However, the general spirit of the holiday concerns Jesus’s physical form, the name actually meaning “manifestation.”
The reason or the alternate name comes from the holiday’s marking of the Three King’s visit to Jesus and his earthly manifestation. Eastern churches will typically celebrate Jesus’s baptism. It is believed that the holiday was first observed in second century Eastern churches as a more broad celebration of Jesus coming to Earth, often celebrating the events of his life up until his baptism in the Jordan River, including the nativity story—why the holiday is celebrated soon after Christmas—and Jesus’s first miracle, in which he turned water to wine. Sometimes, Epiphany refers to the religious season that follows Christmas. Artwork associated with the holiday often includes items from the nativity scene, especially the Magi’s gifts and stars. In more ancient celebrations, the holiday was sometimes celebrated with a feast lasting eight days, which was continued by the Anglicans and the Latin Church, the latter keeping up the practice until reformed by Pope Pius XII in 1955.
The night before Epiphany is called Twelfth Night, which the famous Shakespearean play is named after. A theme of the play is overindulgence. This is because the night before Epiphany is sometimes celebrated with intense feasting, drinking, and antics such as pranks and other well-meaning jokes. In medieval times, many celebrated Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, on Twelfth Night.
Common Epiphany traditions can be divided into two categories: religious and national traditions. This depends on the type of Christian church or the country in which the celebration takes place.
Western—the main difference with Western churches is that there is a significant distinction between the nativity scene and Epiphany. These churches usually reserve the nativity for Christmas time. On Epiphany, they will celebrate Jesus’s baptism, first miracle, and visit from the Three Kings. Sometimes, the Three Kings’ initials (CMB) will be carved over main doors along with a blessing.
Eastern Orthodox—this group focuses on Jesus’s baptism. The Eastern Orthodox Church considers Epiphany to be one of the more significant feasts, even outshining Christmas, lasting from January 1 to January 5. This celebration features fasting as well as feasting.
Coptic Orthodox—typically celebrated with a water blessings, including house blessings and baptisms, this church focuses on Jesus’s baptism, particularly the part of the story in which God shows himself though separated skies. It is also seen as the point at which Jesus’s life transitions to the events surrounding his crucifixion.
Oriental Orthodox—also called the Timkat, this Ethiopian church’s celebration actually falls on January 19th and features ritualistic ceremonies revolving around water during the feast.
Britain—the British usually leave their yule log burning until Epiphany. Twelfth Night is also very widely celebrated. Typical British traditions include the Twelfth cake. This could be any type of cake, but usually a fruit cake, baked with items inside, including a bean, twig, clove, or rag. Anyone finding these items would earn distinctions for the day—king, fool, villain, or tart, respectively. Playing pranks and performing Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is also common. The feast often includes spicy food, a nod to the Magi’s gift of spices.
German speaking countries—many German speaking locations have declared Epiphany a public holiday. Similar to Christmas caroling, groups of children go from house to house dressed as Kings, singing. Interestingly, similar to Halloween, the children will often be given treats. German speaking celebrators also enjoy a fruit cake, except filled with an almond or a trinket to mark the day’s king. Slovakia and the Czech Republic also celebrate by having children dress up as the Three Kings.
Latin America—in these countries, Epiphany, or Día de los Reyes Magos, translated the Day of Kings, the Magi bring gifts to children instead of Santa Claus and the cake is usually ring shaped. Across the pond, Spain also features the Three Kings as present-bearers.
Bulgaria—this country celebrates with a unique custom: a swimming race to retrieve a cross thrown into water by a priest. In some towns, bagpipe music is customary.
Greece—also featuring a cross-retrieval race, the Greek feast, Phota, incorporates a blessing of the sea, starting the outlawing of sailing because of the tumultuous waters of the winter sea. It is said that the waters get rocky because Goblins are trying to frustrate Christians during their holy day. It is typically followed the next day by a feast honoring John the Baptist.
Other common ways to celebrate Epiphany include removing nativity sets and other Christmas decorations, while some cultures might put up decorations specifically for Epiphany.