THURSDAY, JANUARY 6: It’s the visitation of the Magi that most Christians recognize today, but the feast of Epiphany runs much, much deeper than that: Today, officially, is the high point that Christians have been waiting for throughout Advent and the Christmas season. (Read more at the Global Catholic Network.)
This may not be stressed in many modern churchs, for example, but Christian tradition holds that the visit of the Magi represents the first non-Jewish worship of Jesus, revealing Jesus’ larger religious mission. The very word “Epiphany” translates from a Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation”—and referring, of course, to the infant Jesus Christ. (CatholicCulture has one perspective.)
For centuries, Christians clustered a lot around Epiphany: the crescendo of the story of Jesus’ birth, the visit of the Magi, all of Jesus’ childhood and even the miracle of the wedding at Cana. (More is at the Orthodox Research Institute.) Eastern Christians call this feast “Theophany,” and place utmost importance on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River as his time of manifestation to the world. (Note that some Orthodox churches still follow the Julian calendar, and mark Epiphany on Jan. 19, while others recognize it today. Wikipedia has details.)
Customs abound on this important Christian holiday! In Russia and other primarily Orthodox Christian countries, priests place a cross in a body of water and perform the “Great Blessings of Waters,” and where Church waters are blessed, parishioners usually take the water home to bless their residences. In Western Christian regions, “king cakes” are often baked and eaten, and some devotees exchange gifts in representation of the Magi. (These remembrances haven’t disappeared from the Western church, of course, but they have evolved over the centuries—some American Protestant churches will remember baptism on Sunday, January 9, for example.)
In parts of Europe, children walk door-to-door and sing songs to receive a coin or sweet at each home; in some areas, a puff pastry is baked with a bean inside, and the recipient of the bean is king or queen for the day (similarly to older Twelfth Night traditions). Puerto Rican children often place a box with hay beneath their beds, for the Magi’s camels, similarly to American children’s milk and cookies for Santa; and in Mexico, children often leave a letter near a pair of shoes for the Three Kings, hoping for new toys and treats. Americans love to have fun and a few events in the U.S. have become downright silly: In Colorado, there is a Great Fruitcake Toss on Epiphany! In Louisiana, the Carnival season begins and counts down to Mardi Gras.
So how much do you really know about the Magi? As with many popular holidays, the customary stories and pictures don’t portray the complexity of the ancient accounts. For example, most people assume there were three wise men or kings—but how about a dozen of them, or even more? ReadTheSpirit published an interview with Brent Landau, a Bible scholar who has just released a new book indicating that early Christians may have envisioned a whole crowd of Magi coming to see the baby.
Looking for a low-key, fun way to celebrate Epiphany with your family? (Women for Faith and Family has a variety of neat ideas.) Try cooking spicy foods to symbolize the Magi from the East, and create a fun cake shaped like a crown and decorate it with candy “jewels.” (Crayola’s site has coloring and craft ideas.) Or take one of the customs listed above, from another country, and make it your own!