Twelfth Night, Epiphany & Theophany: Closing Christmas, celebrating the Magi

“We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar; field and fountain, moor and mountain; following yonder star.”
-“We Three Kings,” written by John Henry Hopkins Jr., 1857
Twelfth Night procession and festivities

Twelfth Night festivities near London, England. Photo copyright Stephen Craven, courtesy of Geograph.org and licensed for reuse

TUESDAY, JANUARY 5 and WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6: Mayhem and jolliness rule on Twelfth Night, the final event of the 12 days of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany. On the following day, January 6, Epiphany is celebrated in in Western Christianity, thus officially ending the Christmas season in the church; this feast is known as Theophany (or Divine Manifestation) in Eastern Christianity.

Did you know? 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 3 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 first week of the next Christian season (Ordinary Time) does not begin until January 11, 2021. 

TWELFTH NIGHT: TRADITIONS AND (VIRTUAL) JOVIALITY

Three kings, magi, night

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In the Christian church, Twelfth Night is Epiphany Eve, and 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.

NEWS 2021: As with many holidays this year, virtual celebrations are taking the place of many in-person festivities for Twelfth Night 2021. From New York, reenactors present Salutations of the Season, an online event (read more here); similarly, an annual Twelfth Night event in Pennsylvania will be moving online this year. From the Cathedral of the Incarnation, the Cathedral Choirs will perform on January 3, with their annual program, “Twelfth Night and the Procession of Three Kings” (get the Zoom link on the cathedral’s website).

Did you know? 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.

EPIPHANY AND THEOPHANY: REVELATION

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. With the arrival of representatives of other nations came the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place.

ON THEOPHANY, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, although Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

CUSTOMS AND VISITING MAGI

Epiphany Kings Day cake

A traditional galette de rois (cake of the kings). Photo courtesy of PxHere

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, and in most years, festivities include parades, parties, 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, Epiphany (called Theophany) 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.

RECIPES & MORE

Whether baking a Spanish roscon de reyes (kings’ ring) or French galette de rois (cake of the kings), have some Twelfth Night fun!

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.

Twelfth Night turkey with wild rice stuffing and ale reduction is a recipe provided by Food Network.

In some countries, Twelfth Night and Epiphany mark the start of Carnival season, which lasts through Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

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.