Epiphany Holiday: Definition and Practices

The Epiphany holiday celebrates two critical events, the visitation of the Magi and the confirmation of Jesus being the son of God through His baptism.

The Epiphany holiday marks the end of the Christmas season. It commemorates two important events: the day the Magi arrived at Jesus’ manger, and the day John baptized Jesus. Though it isn’t as talked up worldwide as Christmas, the Epiphany holiday is still worth celebrating and is significant to some Christmas traditions. Let’s learn more about one of the oldest Christian holidays.

Epiphany Holiday

What is Epiphany Holiday?

Epiphany holiday is the oldest and one of the three principal festival days of the Christian church. It is celebrated twelve days after Christmas. It commemorates the first time Jesus Christ was revealed to the Magi and the first time Jesus manifested His divinity during His baptism. The word ‘epiphany’ means manifestation originating from the Greek word ‘epiphaneia’. Epiphany holiday is also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, Theophany, and the Three Kings’ Day.

History of Epiphany Holiday

In Western Christianity, Epiphany commemorates the Three Wise Men who followed an angel to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Contrary to popular belief, there is no specific mention of how many wise men there were. The Bible only mentioned that there were three gifts and that the wise men came from the east. The common consensus was that they were between two and twenty, likely Zoroastrian priests. 

The early Christians, particularly those in the East, celebrate the Nativity, Visitation of the Magi, Baptism of Christ, and the Wedding of Cana on the Epiphany holiday. However, Christmas and Epiphany were set as separate feasts in some dioceses by the fourth century. The church at the Council of Tours in 567 set both Christmas day and Epiphany on December 25 and January 6, respectively. The twelve days between those two dates were then named the Christmas season.

As time went by, the Western church separated the feasts and commemorated the Visitation of the Magi on the Epiphany holiday on January 6. Meanwhile, the Eastern church celebrates Christ’s baptism on Theophany, which has become one of the holiest feast days of the liturgical calendar.

When is Epiphany Holiday celebrated?

Whether in Western or Eastern churches, the Epiphany holiday is celebrated twelve days after Christmas (Dec. 25). This year (2022), we celebrated the Epiphany holiday on the first Thursday (Jan. 6). Next year (2023), the Epiphany holiday will be celebrated on January 6th.

Different Practices of Epiphany Holiday

In Western churches

In Western churches, a twelve-day festival is observed. It is known as Christmastide or The Twelve Days of Christmas, and it starts on Christmas day (Dec. 25) and ends on January 5. On the Feast of the Epiphany, priests in central Europe wear white vestments and bless the Epiphany water, frankincense, gold, and chalk. The chalk is then used to write the initials of the three magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) over the doors of the churches and homes

When calendars were not yet available, it was part of a tradition that the priests announced the date of Easter on the feast of Epiphany. The church was responsible for publicizing the date of Easter as many celebrations of the liturgical year depended on the church. The date was either sung or proclaimed by a deacon, cantor, or a reader after reading the Gospel or post-communion prayer.

In Eastern churches

Theophany is one of the Great Feasts of the liturgical year and is celebrated on the 6th of January. Today in Eastern churches, Theophany celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah when He was baptized. 

Jesus’ baptism is celebrated because it is one of the two occasions when God the Father (the voice speaking through the clouds), God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (the dove descending from heaven) have manifested themselves simultaneously to humanity. It is also why Theophany is also considered to be a Trinitarian feast.

On the eve and the day of Theophany, Orthodox churches perform the Great Blessing of Waters. The congregation goes in a procession with the cross to the nearest body of water. At the end of the ceremony, the priest blesses the waters. 

Traditionally, the priest will bless the waters by casting a cross into the water. The priest will then bring the newly blessed Theophany water to the parishioner’s homes, perform a short prayer in each home and bless them with the water.

Epiphany Holiday

Why is it Important to Celebrate the Epiphany Holiday?

It is one of the principal Christian holidays

Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian holidays. It is one of the three principal festival days of the Christian church, together with Easter and Christmas. Western churches celebrate the feast on January 6th, while Eastern churches celebrate Theophany on January 19, as their Christmas Eve falls on the 6th.

It’s an excellent opportunity to give gratitude through gift-giving

Christmas is a time of giving and receiving; this has long been ingrained in our minds. And as much as receiving gifts feels excellent, giving gifts to show your gratitude brings a different sense of fulfillment. Since Epiphany allows us to extend the Christmas holiday, this time is a perfect opportunity to spread the love and appreciation to the people that have positively impacted our lives.

How to Celebrate the Epiphany Holiday?

Sing Carols

Countries in Europe have Epiphany traditions involving children singing songs house to house. Though you’re not from Europe, you’re still permitted and encouraged to sing carols even after December 25. Spread and extend the holiday cheer even after Christmas day.

Give gifts

Gift-giving doesn’t have to end on Christmas; many countries give gifts in honor of the Magi who visited the baby Jesus. Besides tradition, gratitude and appreciation are good reasons to give out presents. If you haven’t expressed your thanks to the people, you love through words, giving them gifts is the next best thing.

Putting away Christmas decorations

The Feast of the Epiphany concludes the Christmas season; it’s why Eastern Christians take down their Christmas decorations. This practice also comes from an old belief that tree spirits live in the holly and ivy used in the ornaments on the tree. Putting the decorations away releases the tree spirits and increases the chances of an abundant harvest and plentiful food supplies for your family.

How is the Epiphany Holiday Celebrated Around the World?

Epiphany holiday is celebrated differently around the world. In some cultures, nativity scenes and Christmas decorations remain displayed until February 2, Candlemas. While in other cultures, they are taken down at Epiphany. A celebratory close to the Christmas season involving gift-giving and ‘king cakes’ is practiced in Western churches. In Orthodox churches, Epiphany is celebrated with baptismal rites and house blessings. 

Latin America

Epiphany is called “Dia de Reyes” or The Day of Kings in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Mexico. “Noche de Reyes” (The Night of Kings) is the night of January 5, going into the morning of January 6th. At night, the children leave their shoes by the door, and when they get up in the morning, they will rush to find gifts left by “Reyes” next to their shoes. 

Western Europe

In Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany, children in groups of three dress up as the Magi and sing songs to each house. Sometimes they also carry a paper lantern symbolizing the star that led the Magi to Jesus. The children receive either a coin or sweets after they sing songs. The same tradition is practiced in German-speaking Europe, such as Austria. The groups of young people traveling and singing door to door are called ‘Sternsingers’. 

Greece

Theophany in Greece is a Great Celebration or ‘Theotromi’. The Great Blessing of the Waters is performed during this day, marking the end of the traditional ban on sailing. Theophany is also a time for sanctification; in Greece, it means expiation. This tradition goes way back and isn’t strictly Christian in origin. 

The ritual is called ‘Protagiasi’, where the priest sanctifies each house with a cross, a branch of basil, and holy water. After this ritual, the Dive of the Cross is performed, where a cross is cast into the sea by the priest. Locals believe that this ritual gives the water the power to cleanse and sanitize, leading the locals to wash their agricultural tools in the heavenly body of water.

Jordan

Christians in Jordan flock to the Al-Maghtas site on the east bank of the Jordan River on Epiphany. It is believed that the location is where John baptized Jesus. Large masses celebrate and are baptized at the site every year. 

Poland

The Polish lavishly celebrate Epiphany, and huge parades are held to welcome the Magi riding their camels. The Magi passes out sweets, the children dress up in renaissance wear, and living nativity scenes are enacted. Then at the end of the parade, church leaders preach about the significance of Epiphany. 

United States

In the United States, specifically in Louisiana, it is customary to bake King cakes as Epiphany indicates the beginning of the Carnival season. The round cakes are filled with cinnamon, glazed with white icing sugar, and topped with traditional carnival color sanding sugar. 

Epiphany also has a festive celebration in Colonial Virginia. On the 12th night, balls and dancing and weddings are a cause for great merriment. A Great Cake made of two giant layers of fruitcake is cut and served by the youngest child present. Then whoever finds the bean or prize inside the cake will be crowned the ‘King of the Bean’ like the European king cake custom. 

However, the most notable Epiphany holiday celebration is in Tarpon Springs, Florida. They host elaborate religious ceremonies correlated to the Greek Orthodox Church. Like how it is in Europe, they would toss a cross into the Spring Bayou, and teenage boys dive into the water to retrieve the cross. After this event, the celebration takes off at the Sponge Docks, where food and music abound.

Epiphany Holiday

In Summary

The Epiphany holiday marks the end of the Christmas season. Though we are putting away the Christmas tree and decorations at this time, the joy that the holiday brought us is still very fresh in our minds and hearts. How can we not be happy when the Epiphany holiday reminds us of two significant events, the visitation of the Magi at His birth and the day He was revealed as the son of God at His baptism by John. Wherever you are, the Epiphany holiday is a day worth celebrating with festive joy. 

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Alex Shute
EDITOR
Alex Shute, MBA
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.