12th Night, Epiphany and Theophany: Ancient traditions mark close of Christmas

Persons in era Christmas clothing, some with instruments, some persons in everyday clothing, march down street in happy procession

A Twelfth Night procession in Great Britain. Photo by Stephen Craven

MONDAY, JANUARY 6: Epiphany in Western Christianity; Theophany (or Divine Manifestation) in Eastern Christianity.

Did you know? Dates and customs vary widely! These festivals have been evolving for many centuries. Epiphany and Theophany customs in some countries actually mingle Eastern and Western Christian traditions—look to Eastern Europe for examples. Also, many Christians in the U.S. marked Epiphany on Sunday January 5 this year. In fact, the official U.S. Roman Catholic calendar considers all of this week to be an extension of “Christmas week,” so the next Christian season (Ordinary Time) does not begin until January 13, 2020. 

Here’s more about these festivals …

TWELFTH NIGHT

Only a century ago, Christmas celebrations were reaching their peak on the night of January 5. Hard to believe? It’s true—the 12th day of Christmas, known better as Twelfth Night, has long been an occasion for special cakes, “misrule” (lively celebrations) and plenty of merrymaking. In the Christian Church, Twelfth Night is Epiphany Eve, as the faithful prepare for the feast celebrating the visitation of the Magi. In some Catholic countries, children anticipate small gifts and candies to be left on the evening of January 5, as the Magi “pass by” on their way to Bethlehem. Songs such as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “I Saw Three Ships” pay homage to the Magi and, respectively, to their relics being transported to Cologne, aboard three ships.

Did you know? George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night. In past centuries, it was common for weddings to be held during Christmastide (the period between Christmas and Epiphany).

Round cake of bread and with red and green decor on top, with paper crown in middle

A Spanish Rosca de reyes, commonly consumed on Twelfth Night or Epiphany. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In centuries past, the early days of January were filled with plenty of fatty, sugary foods, drinks, parties and gatherings around the table with family and friends. Particularly in medieval and Tudor England, it was custom for a Twelfth Night cake to be served, into which a bean was cooked: the recipient of piece of cake with the bean would rule for the evening. As Twelfth Night ended a winter festival, the Lord of Misrule gained sovereignty. (Wikipedia has details.) For one evening—until midnight—peasants were treated as kings, and kings as peasants. The Lord of Misrule tradition dates back to Celtic and Ancient Roman civilizations.

In Colonial America, the Christmas wreath was left on the door until the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, at which time any edible portions were consumed. In a similar manner, any fruits on Christmas trees were consumed on Twelfth Night. (Interested in the Victorian era’s take on Twelfth Night? Read more at JaneAusten.co.uk.)

EPIPHANY AND THEOPHANY

ON EPIPHANY, Christians worldwide rejoice in the manifestation of Jesus, revealed as God the Son, on the Feast of Epiphany (in Greek, Theophany). Literally “striking appearance,” or “vision of God,” Epiphany and Theophany have been central to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars for centuries. Through Advent, the Western Christian Church anticipated the coming of Jesus, and of course Mary and Joseph were the earliest witnesses. But Christian tradition holds that one key moment in this revelation was the arrival of the Magi—representatives of other nations—when the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place.

In a similar way, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, at this time of year, but Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, complete with parades, parties, king cakes and “visiting” Magi. On the morning of Epiphany in Poland, some children dress in traditional clothing, carols are sung and homes are blessed; in Argentina, many children awake to find gifts left by the “passing” Magi.

In Eastern Orthodox Christian communities, observances are far more elaborate. Epiphany is called Theophany and also commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Because all three branches of the Holy Trinity were present at Jesus’ baptism, according to church teaching, this event marks the moment at which Jesus was fully recognized as the Son of God. (Wikipedia has details.)

It remains common for priests to bless water on Epiphany and for parishioners to ingest, sprinkle or swim in water. This can become quite a vivid event! Orthodox priests bless both a baptismal font and a “living” body of water, and even in countries with frigid temperatures in the winter months, some brave souls like to dive into the freezing—but blessed—water. According to Greek custom, a priest may throw a crucifix into the “living” water, and any number of swimmers will attempt to find the cross. The lucky swimmer who finds the cross then returns it to the priest, in exchange for a blessing. The largest Epiphany event of this kind in the Western Hemisphere, performed for more than a century, happens annually in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

Epiphany: Christians celebrate the manifestation of God

Neutral color depiction of three men on camels in desert, facing forward, caravans behind

James Tissot’s The Magi Journeying (Les rois mages en voyage). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, JANUARY 6: Christians worldwide rejoice in the manifestation of Jesus, revealed as God the Son, on the Feast of Epiphany (in Greek, Theophany). Literally “striking appearance,” or “vision of God,” Epiphany and Theophany have been central to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars for centuries. Through Advent, the Western Christian Church anticipated the coming of Jesus, and of course Mary and Joseph were the earliest witnesses. But Christian tradition holds that one key moment in this revelation was the arrival of the Magi—representatives of other nations—when the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place. (Learn more, and find resources, at Catholic Culture and Women for Faith and Family.)

In a similar way, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, at this time of year, but Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

Note: Many churches in the United States today commemorate Epiphany on the Sunday between Jan. 2 and 8—this year, Jan. 4—and Eastern Orthodox churches following the Julian calendar will observe Theophany in 13 days (on Jan. 19). Most Western Christian churches will commemorate Jesus’s baptism on Sunday, Jan. 11.

Man with tall decorated hat surrounded by crowd of children wearing paper crowns

Three Kings Day Parade 2013, in New York. Photo by Dave Bledsoe, courtesy of Flickr

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, complete with parades, parties, king cakes and “visiting” Magi. (In centuries past, Epiphany Eve—Twelfth Night—had elaborate traditions all its own.) On the morning of Epiphany in Poland, some children dress in renaissance clothing, carols are sung and homes are blessed; in Argentina, many children awake to find gifts left by the “passing” Magi.

A house blessing, inscribed with chalk, is popular in several parts of central Europe. Write a blessing on your home by inscribing the following above the front door: 20 C+M+B 15. (“2015” split into two, and the initials of the Magi.)

Finnish piparkakuts, ginger spice cookies, are typically cut into the shape of a star and served on Epiphany. Find the authentic recipe at this blog, or in this New York Times post.

In many countries, a king cake filled with almond paste, spiced with exotic spices or decorated with dried fruits is baked, and one bean is tucked inside: the recipient of the slice of cake with the bean is believed blessed for the year (or, in Mexico, the recipient must host the Candlemas party. Wikipedia has details). In some Orthodox nations, a Cross is cast into open water by a priest, and swimmers compete to retrieve it—the reward for which is a blessing by the priest. In numerous countries, Epiphany officially kicks off Carnival season.

THE MAGI, THE BAPTISM AND THE MIRACLE AT CANA

In the Western Christian Church, Epiphany commemorates the Adoration of the Magi—and, to a lesser extent, the Baptism of Jesus and the Wedding at Cana. All three events reveal the manifestation of God as Jesus, Christians believe, and some early accounts detail the Miracle at Cana—Christ’s first public miracle—as having occurred on Jan. 6. Eastern Orthodox tradition focuses on Jesus as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) As Jesus’s baptism is commemorated foremost in the Orthodox Church, a Great Blessing of the Waters is performed.

Tradition has it that the Magi were baptized by St. Thomas. They are considered saints of the Church.

 


Epiphany/Theophany: Western, Eastern Christians hail manifestation of the Son

Three men in white with black head coverings recite liturgy by the sea, with men in black robes in background

An Epiphany (Theophany) liturgy at the Monastery of Prophet Elias of Santorini in Greece. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JANUARY 6: Once eclipsing Christmas, millions of Christians today celebrate Epiphany, or Theophany. Both terms are Greek in origin: the first, meaning “manifestation,” and the second, “vision of God.” For Western Christians, Epiphany focuses on the visitation of Magi; in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Theophany highlights the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Across Christianity, today’s celebration realizes the revelation of God in Jesus.

WESTERN CHRISTIANITY:
MAGI, GIFTS AND THE ‘STAR OF BETHLEHEM’

In many Catholic homes—and Italian Catholic homes, in particular—children are told that the Magi “visit” their home on Twelfth Night, leaving behind small gifts. Traditionally, the Three Kings or Three Wise Men are not placed near the crèche, or manger, until Twelfth Night or Epiphany, and gold candles and deep purple cloth adorn the scene.

Did you know? The gifts of the Magi bear symbolism: Gold is a sign of kingship, frankincense is a sign of a deity and myrrh is a sign of the death of Jesus.

The astrological event behind a famed Star of Bethlehem has been highly debated throughout history: St. Ignatius of Antioch (CE 50-100) insisted it was a miraculous event, such as the pillar of fire in Numbers 13:21. Others believe it was a comet or a conjunction of planets, and St. Augustine (b. 354 CE) held it as a natural occurrence.

EASTERN CHRISTIANITY:
BLESSING OF THE WATERS

The third greatest feast of liturgical year, Theophany is a Trinitarian feast: or, in other words, a celebration of the times when all three persons of the Trinity manifested themselves, simultaneously, to humanity. The Forefeast of Theophany began Jan. 1; an eight-day Afterfeast follows the holiday. Russian Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar mark Theophany on the Gregorian Jan. 19, while Greek Orthodox Christians observe Theophany today. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)

Perhaps the most notable element of Theophany services is the Great Blessing of the Waters, for which the clergy and laypeople form a procession (with the cross) to the nearest body of water. The priest blesses the waters and, in some practices, throws the cross into the water. Laypersons often jump into the water in a competition to retrieve the cross, and the winner receives a special blessing. Other laypersons gather the blessed water in containers, for drinking and sprinkling around the home.

Ring-shaped cake with colorful candied fruits on top

A ring-shaped Epiphany cake, decorated with candied fruits. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

EPIPHANY AND THEOPHANY
AROUND THE WORLD

The term “theophany” is used in almost every major world religion, as the manifestation of a deity to a worshipper. In Christianity, Epiphany / Theophany has been fixed on Jan. 6 from the earliest centuries.

Did you know? In Poland, Communists banned the celebration of Epiphany; it was reinstated in 2011 with the revolutions that swept eastern Europe.

In Argentina, the faithful dine on a ring-shaped Epiphany cake on Dia de los Reyes (Day of the Kings), and put away Christmas decorations; the French eat a galette des Rois (pastry filled with almond cream) with a bean hidden inside; in Mexico, the Magi are added to the nativity scene on Epiphany Eve. (The UK’s The Telegraph has a photo slideshow of events worldwide.) Across Bulgaria, hundreds plunge into icy waters to retrieve a cast cross and perform a lengthy “men’s dance”;in Kosovo, Serbs chopp Oak branches to decorate their homes; in Louisiana and other regions of the U.S., Epiphany ushers in Carnival season. (USA Today reported, in 2012.)

RECIPES AND ACTIVITIES

Bake Epiphany Bread and King’s Cake, with recipes at Catholic Culture.

Revive the prayerful chalk-and-water custom of Epiphany, with instructions at Catholic Culture.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Twelfth Night: Jolliness as 12 Days of Christmas end

Group of commoners in a painting, drinking, dancing and acting foolishly

Masquerading and foolery have been Twelfth Night festivities for centuries. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, JANUARY 5: Mayhem and jolliness rule Twelfth Night, the final event of the 12 days of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany. Though its significance has been lesser known in recent decades, the commercialism of the holiday season is now causing more people to “let off steam” with the goofiness that once reigned on January 5. In earlier centuries, masquerades, role reversals, a Lord of Misrule and pantomimes were common.

Twelfth Night banner decorated with evergreens

A Twelfth Night banner is paraded around the courtyard of the George Inn, in England. Photo by Stephen Craven

As with most Christmas traditions, the customs of Twelfth Night are a blend of Christian and pagan practices. (Wikipedia has details.) The Three Kings are kept in mind with a King Cake, but a pagan tradition took “king of the day” to a new level: peasants acted as kings and royalty as the common man. The typical King Cake is still baked with a bean inside, and the recipient of the bean in his or her piece of cake then becomes “king” or “queen” until midnight. In England, massive feasts would be host to various masquerading games and plenty of food, and today, wassail and king cakes are still consumed on Twelfth Night.

RECIPES, ACTIVITIES & MORE

Sip Lamb’s Wool (a type of Wassail) and bite into a King Cake, two customary dishes served on Twelfth Night. Check out recipes at Fish Eaters.  An English Twelfth Night Cake recipe is courtesy of the New York Times, and Food Network provides Twelfth Night Turkey with Wild Rice Stuffing and Ale Reduction.

Tradition has it that the “king” or “queen” of the day is addressed as royalty and must be obeyed. Let the bean in your cake determine who is king or queen!

Plan a children’s Twelfth Night party, complete with a cake and DIY crowns for the three children who receive a bean in their cake. Find more activities at Catholic Culture.

IN THE NEWS

From sold-out shows in London’s West End, Twelfth Night—the Shakespearean comedy that was intended as entertainment for the offbeat evening—is hitting Broadway for 16 weeks, through Feb. 16. Meanwhile, Twelfth Night party popularity is on the upswing, from the musical activities of Trinity Wall Street New York (New York Times reported) to the Mill Race festivities in Cambridge and a celebration in Concord.

In Catholicism and many countries worldwide, Twelfth Night and Epiphany usher in Carnival season, which lasts through Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday).