Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th, or on the Sunday between January 2nd and January 8th. It traditionally closes the Christmas season. The word Ephiphany comes from the Greek epiphanein, meaning a "showing, appearance or revelation." Early Christians who spoke Greek used the word to describe Jesus himself, who was revealed to be the living God. A feast on January 6th celebrated the revelation of His baptism in the Jordan and of His first miracle at Cana, turning water into wine. Later the gospel story of the Magi was incorporated, as Christ's ephiphany to the Gentiles. There are a number of traditions at Epiphany that can enliven your celebration of Christmastide.
No one really knows how many wise men came to see the Christ Child. More than one, for the gospel of Matthew mentions "men." Writers in the Middle Ages interpreted three, based upon the gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold, and gave them names: Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. Everyone agrees, the wise men were not really kings but were astrologers, most likely dream interpreters for the royal family of Persia. Regardless, they were Gentiles--not Jews--and were the first of their kind known to worship the Son of God. As an Epiphany gift for his brother's young children, in 1857 John Henry Hopkins, Jr., wrote one of the most beloved (and gleefully parodied) of Christmas carols:
WE THREE KINGS OF ORIENT ARE
We three kings of Orient are.
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar--
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a King on Bethlehem's plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again.
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.
Myrrh is mine. Its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Glorious now, behold Him arise!
King and God and sacrifice!
Sounds through the earth and skies!
Download Henry Van Dyke's classic "Story of the Fourth Wise Man."
There are a number of lovely customs at Epiphany. In many churches and families, that is when the three wise men are added to the Nativity scene, completing it. In some instances, the figures have been inched closer to the crib since Christmas. Because the wise men came from the Orient, food served on the 6th of January may be hot with curry, and there might be a spice cake! Small gifts may be exchanged, recalling the gifts given the Christ Child.
The tradition of Blessing the Home with holy water and incense has persisted since the Middle Ages. A priest or the head of household marks the lintel of the door with blessed chalk, using an inscription that joins the letters CMB, for Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar--or for "Christus mansionem benedicat" (Latin for "May Christ Bless This House")--with a code for the current year connected with crosses: 20+C+M+B+10. The inscription remains above the doorway until Pentecost. You may download the traditional prayers for blessing the chalk and blessing the home here:
Particularly in England, Epiphany is called Twelfth Night and is celebrated with a drink called Lamb's Wool, made of ale or cider, with roasted apples, sugar and spices. The drink gets its name from the woolly appearance of the roasted apples floating in the bowl. It was also customary to bless apple trees on that night by pouring cider on them.
Download a recipe for Lamb's Wool!
Epiphany Cake, or King's Cake, is a time-honored custom in many cultures. The recipe for Epiphany Cake varies throughout Europe, from the French galette de Rois, an almond paste-filled pastry topped with a golden paper crown, to the English fruit-filled cake, layered and iced. A true Epiphany cake should contain a trinket such as a coin, or a bean; the person who finds the trinket becomes king of the feast. Sometimes there is a bean and a pea, for a king and a queen. You may downloadhere simple instructions for making an Epiphany Cake that will appeal to children:
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" May I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly . . "
--- Sir Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)
Adoration of the Magi, from Monastery Icons (see our Links page)