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.

Twelfth Night: Eat (cake), find a bean and prepare for the visit of the Magi

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 5: 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.)

THE MAGI AND THE JOURNEY

Though the Bible describes the Magi as kings, they were not, in actuality, kings in the sense we use that term today. Historians believe that these Magi were members of a priestly class, and are believed to have traveled from ancient Persia—a distance of about 1,000 miles from Bethlehem. The famous Star of Bethlehem remains shrouded in mystery, with many theories existing: some suspect this is a reference to a comet or supernova, and others to a conjunction of planets. St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Acquinas and many other early church leaders believed it was a miraculous event.

RECIPES, ACTIVITIES & MORE

Whether baking a Spanish Roscon de reyes (Kings’ ring) or French Galette de Rois (Cake of the Kings), find a recipe and have some Twelfth Night fun!

Want to make some of these delicious breads? Get a copy of Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith, which tells a series of true stories about sacred bread traditions—including what is often called King Cake—with delicious recipes, of course!

In some countries, Twelfth Night and Epiphany mark the start of Carnival season, which lasts through Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. Lynne describes these traditions in her book.

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).