Epiphany (Greek for "to manifest" or "to show"), is a Christian feast day which celebrates the revelation of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ. Epiphany falls on January 6. Many of the Eastern Churches use the traditional Julian Calendar, while other Christian churches follow the modern Gregorian Calendar. January 6 on the Julian Calendar falls on the Gregorian Calendar's January 19. Western Christians commemorate the visitation of the Biblical Magi to the child Jesus on this day, i.e., his manifestation to the Gentiles. Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. It is also called Theophany, especially by Eastern Christians.
The observance had its origins in the Eastern Christian Churches, and was originally a general celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and included the commemoration of: his birth; the visit of the Magi, or "Wise Men" from Persia (Magi being Persian priests), who arrived in Bethlehem; all of Jesus' childhood events, up to and including his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist; and even the miracle at the Wedding of Cana in Galilee. However, it seems fairly clear that the Baptism was the event predominantly commemorated.
The date of the feast was very early fixed on January 6. Ancient Liturgies speak of Illuminatio, Manifestatio, Declaratio (Illumination, Manifestation, Declaration); cf. Matthew 3:13–17; Luke 3:22; and John 2:1–11; where the Baptism and the Marriage at Cana are dwelt upon. Western Christians have traditionally emphasized the "Revelation to the Gentiles" mentioned in Luke, where the term Gentile means all non-Jewish peoples. The Biblical Magi, who represent the non-Jewish peoples of the world, paid homage to the infant Jesus in stark contrast to Herod the Great (King of Judea) who sought to kill him. However, in this event there is also a revelation to the Children of Israel. Saint John Chrysostom identified the significance of the meeting between the Magi and Herod's court: "The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way the birth of Jesus would be made known to all."
The earliest reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast was in A.D. 361, by Ammianus Marcellinus St. Epiphanius says that January 6 is hemera genethlion toutestin epiphanion (Christ's "Birthday; that is, His Epiphany"). He also asserts that the Miracle at Cana occurred on the same calendar day.
In 385, the pilgrim Egeria (also known as Silvia) describes a celebration in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which she calls "Epiphany" (epiphania) that obviously commemorates the Nativity of Christ. Even at this early date, there is already an octave associated with the feast.
In a sermon delivered on December 25, 380, St. Gregory of Nazianzus somewhat confusingly refers to the day as ta theophania ("the Theophany", an alternative name for Epiphany) saying expressly that it is a day commemorating he hagia tou Christou gennesis ("the holy nativity of Christ") and tells his listeners that they will soon be celebrating the baptism of Christ. Then, on January 6 and 7, he preached two more sermons wherein he declared that the celebration of the birth of Christ and the visitation of the Magi had already taken place, and that they would now commemorate his Baptism. So at this point the two celebrations are beginning to be separated, at least in Cappadocia.
However, this was not the case everywhere. Saint John Cassian says that even in his time (beginning of the 5th century) the Egyptian monasteries still celebrated the Nativity and Baptism together on January 6. The Armenian Apostolic Church still continues to celebrate January 6 as the only commemoration of the Nativity.
Epiphany is celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Churches, but a major difference between them is over precisely which historical events the feast commemorates. For Western Christians the feast primarily commemorates the coming of the Magi, while in the East the feast celebrates the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan. However, in both cases the essence of the feast is the same: the manifestation of Christ to the world (whether as an infant or in the Jordan), and the Mystery of the Incarnation.
By the year 534 the Western Church had separated out the celebration of the Nativity of Christ into the feast of Christmas and set its date as December 25, reserving January 6 as a commemoration of the coming of the Magi. The East continued to celebrate January 6 as a composite feast, only later adopting December 25 to commemorate both Jesus' birth and the coming of the Magi, but leaving January 6 as a commemoration of his Baptism. Hungarians, perhaps because of their location between East and West, celebrate the coming of the Magi, but refer to the celebration as Vízkereszt or "water cross," clearly a reference to baptism.
The West generally acknowledges a twelve-day festival, starting on December 25, and ending on January 5, known as Christmastide or the twelve days of Christmas, although some Christian cultures, especially those of Latin America and some in Europe extend it to as many as forty days, ending on Candlemas (February 2).
On the Feast of the Epiphany itself, the priest, wearing white vestments, will bless the Epiphany Water, frankincense, gold, and chalk. Chalk is used to write the initials of the three magi over the doors of churches and homes. Not only do the letters stand for the initials of the Magi (traditionally named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), but of the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates as "may Christ bless the house".
There is also an ancient custom of solemnly announcing the date of Easter on the feast of Epiphany. This tradition dates from a time when calendars were not readily available, and it was therefore necessary to make known the date of Easter in advance, since many celebrations of the liturgical year depend on it. The proclamation may be sung or proclaimed at the ambo by a deacon, cantor, or reader either after the reading of the Gospel or after the prayer after communion.
Prior to the reform of 1955, when Pope Pius XII abolished all but three octaves, the Roman Catholic Church (and prior to 1976, the Anglican churches) celebrated Epiphany as an eight-day feast beginning on January 6 and ending on January 13, the Octave of Epiphany. They celebrate the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday within the octave, and the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on the Sunday between January 2 and January 5 or, if there is no such Sunday, on January 2; and they reckon Christmastide as the twelve days ending on January 5, followed by Epiphany time, consisting of the feast itself and its octave.
In the 1970 revision of the Roman Catholic calendar of saints Epiphany remains on January 6 for countries where the feast is a Holy Day of Obligation, but is celebrated in other countries on the Sunday after January 1. Christmastide ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is always on the Sunday after Epiphany (unless, where Epiphany is not a holy day of obligation, Epiphany is celebrated on January 7 or 8, in which case Baptism of the Lord is celebrated in the following Monday).
The Roman Missal provides a formula with appropriate chant (in the tone of the Exsultet) for proclaiming on the feast of the Epiphany after the Gospel, wherever it is customary to do so, the dates in the calendar year for the celebration of Ash Wednesday, Easter Sunday, Ascension of Jesus Christ, Pentecost, the Body and Blood of Christ, and the First Sunday of Advent in the following Liturgical Year.
In the Church of England, the Epiphany is classified as a Principal Feast and is observed on January 6 or on the Sunday between January 2 and 8. There is also an Epiphany season, observed between the season of Christmas and the first period of Ordinary Time. It begins at Evening Prayer on the Eve of the Epiphany and ends at Evening Prayer (or Night Prayer) on the Feast of the Presentation (which may be celebrated on February 2 or on the Sunday between January 28 and February 3).
Usually called the Feast of Theophany (Greek:, "God shining forth" or "divine manifestation"), it is one of the Great Feasts of the liturgical year, being third in rank, behind only Pascha (Easter) and Pentecost in importance. Orthodox Christians that follow the Gregorian Calendar celebrate Epiphany on January 6, while those who follow the Julian Calendar celebrate it on January 19.
And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day… And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings. And they say that it was the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, the fifteenth day of the month of Tubi; and some that it was the eleventh of the same month.
(The 11th and 15th of Tubi are January 6 and 10 respectively.)
Today in Eastern Orthodox churches, the emphasis at this feast is on the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Second Person of the Trinity at the time of his baptism. It is also celebrated because, according to tradition, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist marked one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity manifested themselves simultaneously to humanity: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, God the Son being baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove descending from heaven (the other occasion was the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor). Thus the holy day is considered to be a Trinitarian feast.
Forefeast: The liturgical Forefeast of Theophany begins on January 1, and concludes with the Paramony on January 5.
Paramony: The Eve of the Feast is called Paramony (Greek:, Slavonic: navechérie). Paramony is observed as a strict fast day, on which those faithful who are physically able, refrain from food until the first star is observed in the evening, when a meal with wine and oil may be taken. On this day the Royal Hours are celebrated, thus tying together the feasts of Nativity and Good Friday. The Royal Hours are followed by the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil which combines Vespers with the Divine Liturgy. During the Vespers, fifteen Old Testament lections which foreshadow the Baptism of Christ are read, and special antiphons are chanted. If the Feast of the Theophany falls on a Sunday or Monday, the Royal Hours are chanted on the previous Friday, and on the Paramony the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated and the fasting is lessened to some degree.
Blessing of Waters: The Orthodox Churches perform the Great Blessing of Waters on Theophany. The blessing is normally done twice: once on the Eve of the Feast—usually at a Baptismal font inside the church—and then again on the day of the feast, outdoors at a body of water. Following the Divine Liturgy, the clergy and people go in a Crucession (procession with the cross) to the nearest body of water, be it a beach, harbor, quay, river, lake, swimming pool, water depot, etc. (ideally, it should be a body of "living water"). At the end of the ceremony the priest will bless the waters. In the Greek practice, he does this by casting a cross into the water. If swimming is feasible on the spot, any number of volunteers may try to recover the cross. The person who gets the cross first swims back and returns it to the priest, who then delivers a special blessing to the swimmer and their household. Certain such ceremonies have achieved particular prominence, such as the one held annually at Tarpon Springs, Florida. In Russia, where the winters are severe, a hole will be cut into the ice so that the waters may be blessed. In such conditions, the cross is not cast into the water, but is held securely by the priest and dipped three times into the water.
The water that is blessed on this day is known as "Theophany Water" and is taken home by the faithful, and used with prayer as a blessing. People will not only bless themselves and their homes by sprinkling with Theophany Water, but will also drink it. The Orthodox Church teaches that Theophany Water differs from regular holy water in that with Theophany Water, the very nature of the water is changed and becomes incorrupt, a miracle attested to as early as St. John Chrysostom.
Theophany is a traditional day for performing Baptisms, and this is reflected in the Divine Liturgy by singing the baptismal hymn, "As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia," in place of the Trisagion.
House Blessings: On Theophany the priest will begin making the round of the parishioner's homes to bless them. He will perform a short prayer service in each home, and then go through the entire house, gardens and outside-buildings, blessing them with the newly-blessed Theophany Water, while all sing the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast. This is normally done on Theophany, or at least during the Afterfeast, but if the parishioners are numerous, and especially if many live far away from the church, it may take some time to bless each house. Traditionally, these blessings should all be finished before the beginning of Great Lent).
Afterfeast: The Feast of Theophany is followed by an eight-day Afterfeast on which the normal fasting laws are suspended. The Saturday and Sunday after Theophany have special readings assigned to them, which relate to the Temptation of Christ and to penance and perseverance in the Christian struggle. There is thus a liturgical continuum between the Feast of Theophany and the beginning of Great Lent.
In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the feast is known as Timkat and is celebrated on January 19 (or January 20 if that year is a Leap Year according to the Ethiopian calendar). The celebration of this feast features Blessing of Waters and solemn processions with the sacred Tabot.
In the Armenian Church, January 6 is celebrated as the Nativity (Sourp Dznount) and Theophany of Christ. The feast is preceded by a seven-day fast. On the eve of the feast, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. This Liturgy is referred to as the Jrakaloutz Badarak (the Eucharist of the lighting of the lamps) in honor of the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God. This Liturgy is followed by a Blessing of Waters, during which the cross is immersed in the water, symbolizing Jesus' descent into the Jordan, and holy muron (chrism) poured in, symbolic of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. The next morning, after the Liturgy, the cross is removed from the vessel of Holy Water and all come forward to kiss the cross and partake of the blessed water.
There are varying stories about Epiphany and Italy. According to the Roman author Macrobius, the word "Epiphania" was transformed into Befana, the great fair held at that season, when sigillaria of terracotta or baked pastry were sold (Macrobius I, x, xxiv; II, xlix). In popular folklore, Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of January 6 to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad.
In some European cultures, the greenery put up at Christmas is taken down at Epiphany, in other cultures it remains up until the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (February 2).
The Irish call this day Little Christmas or "Women's Christmas" (Irish: Nollaig na mBan).
The Dutch and Flemish call this day Drie koningen (Three Kings' Day). In the Netherlands and Belgium, children in groups of three (symbolising the three kings) proceed in costume from house to house while singing songs typical for the occasion, and receiving a coin or some sweets at each door.
In France, on Epiphany people eat the gâteau des Rois in Provence or the galette des Rois in the northern half of France and Belgium. This is a kind of king cake, with a trinket (usually a porcelain figurine of a king) or a bean hidden inside. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes "king" for a day.
In Greece, Cyprus and the Greek diaspora throughout the world, the feast is colloquially called the "Phōta" (Greek, Modern (1453-): Φώτα, "Lights") and customs revolve around the Great Blessing of the Waters. It marks the end of the traditional ban on sailing, as the tumultuous winter seas are cleansed of the mischief-prone "kalikántzaroi", the goblins that try to torment God-fearing Christians through the festive season. The Phota form the middle of another festive triduum, together with Epiphany Eve, January 5, when children sing the Epiphany carols, and the great feast of St. John the Baptist on January 7th, when the numerous Johns and Joans celebrate their name-day..
In Malta, Epiphany is commonly known as It-Tre Re (The Three Kings). Until the 1980s January 6 was a public holiday, but today the Maltese are celebrating Epiphany on the first Sunday of the year. But children are still taking January 6 as a school holiday and Christmas decorations light up till this day also on most public streets.
In Spain, Filipinas (Philippines), and some Latin American countries Epiphany day is called El Día de los Reyes (The Day of the Kings), i.e., the day when a group of Kings or Magi, as related in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew, arrived to worship and bring three gifts to the baby Jesus after following a star in the heavens. This day is sometimes known as the Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (The day of the Three Royal Magi) or La Pascua de los Negros (Holy Day of the Blackmen) in Chile, although the latter is rarely heard. In Spanish tradition, on the day of January 6, three of the Kings: Melchor, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representing Europe, Arabia, and Africa, arrived on horse, camel and elephant, bringing respectively gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
In Spain and certain parts of Latin America, children (and many adults) polish and leave their shoes ready for the Kings' presents before they go to bed on the eve of January 6. Sweet wine, nibbles, fruit and milk are left for the Kings and their camels. In Mexico, it is traditional for children to leave their shoes, along with a letter with toy requests for the Three Kings, by the family nativity scene or by their beds. In some parts of northern Mexico the shoes and letters are left under the Christmas tree. The shoes may be filled with hay for the camels, so that the Kings will be generous with their gifts. In the Philippines Christmas officially ends on the Feast of the Three Kings (Tres Reyes or Tatlong Hari in Tagalog), also known as the Feast of the Epiphany. Filipino children leave their shoes out, so that the Three Kings would leave behind gifts like candy or money inside. In Puerto Rico, it is traditional for children to fill a box with grass or hay and put it underneath their bed, for the same reasons. These traditions are analogous to the customs of children leaving mince pies and sherry out for Father Christmas in Western Europe or leaving milk and cookies for Santa Claus in the United States.
In the afternoon or evening of the same day the ritual of the Rosca de reyes/Roscón de Reyes is shared with family and friends. The Rosca or Roscón is a type of pastry made with orange blossom water and butter, and decorated with candied fruit. Baked inside is a small doll representing the baby Jesus.
In Mexico, the person who finds the doll in their piece of rosca must throw a party on February 2, "Candelaria Day," offering tamales and atole (a hot sweet drink thickened with corn flour) to the guests.
In Spain, the bread is known as Roscón. Made with the same or similar items above; traditionally the roscón was simply a round, sweet bread with candied fruit on top, however, recently, different flavoured whipped creams are used as filling. The 'Jesus' doll evolved into a small toy similar to a Kinder Surprise it may also includes a bean. The person who gets the toy is then crowned king for the day, while the person who finds the bean is responsible for paying for the Roscon.
In Louisiana, Epiphany is the beginning of the Mardi Gras season, during which it is customary to bake King Cakes, similar to the Rosca mentioned above. The one who finds the doll (or bean) must provide the next king cake. The interval between Epiphany and Mardi Gras is sometimes known as "king cake season."