Epiphany – The 12th day of Christmas!

The ancient Christian feast day is significant as a celebration of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, as well as a more general celebration of his birth. The six Sundays which follow Epiphany are known as the time of manifestation.

The Twelfth Night (Epiphany) also marks a visit to the baby Jesus by three Kings, or Wise Men. The word ‘Epiphany’ comes from Greek and means to show, referring to Jesus being revealed to the world.

In the West, Christians began celebrating the Epiphany in the 4th century, associating it with the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the men found Jesus by following a star across the desert for twelve days to Bethlehem.

An ancient mosaic in Ravenna showing the three wise men

The three men – named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – followed the star of Bethlehem to meet the baby Jesus. According to Matthew 2:11, they offered symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts were symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth, the gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.

During the medieval period, Christmas was celebrated for the 12 days from Christmas Eve on December 24, until the Epiphany. Even up until the 19th century, January 6 was as big a celebration as Christmas Day.

A Greek Orthodox swimmer kisses the wooden cross he rtrieved from the Bosphorus river's Golden Horn after a mass as part of celebrations of the Epiphany day at the Church of Fener Orthodox Patriarchiate in Istanbul, on January 6, 2013.A Greek Orthodox swimmer kisses the wooden cross he retrieved from the Bosphorus river’s Golden Horn after a mass as part of celebrations of the Epiphany day   Photo: Getty

For many Protestant churches, the season of Epiphany extends from January 6 until Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. The last Sunday of the Epiphany is celebrated as Transfiguration Sunday.

Others, including the Catholic church, observe Epiphany as a single day. Some Catholic dioceses in the US mark the Epiphany feast on the Sunday after January 6.

Orthodox Christians, however, celebrate the holiday on January 19 each year.

Men dressed as the Wise Men are seen during Epiphany celebrations in a church in San Salvador on January 6, 2011Men dressed as the Wise Men are seen during Epiphany celebrations in a church in San Salvador in 2011  Photo: AFP/Getty

Across the world, the day’s festivities vary. In the Spanish speaking world Epiphany is known as Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings’ Day). In Mexico, for instance, crowds gather to taste the Rosca de Reyes – Kings’ bread. In other countries, a Jesus figurine is hidden in the bread.

Ten facts about the Feast of the Epiphany

1. The three Kings (Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar) represented Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively.

2. Hundreds of years ago, roast lamb was traditionally served at Epiphany in honour of Christ and the three Kings’ visit.

3. Whoever finds the small statue of a baby Jesus hidden inside their slice of the Rosca de reyes throws a party on Candlemas in February.

4. In some European countries, children leave their shoes out the night before to be filled with gifts, while others leave straw for the three Kings’ horses.

5. According to Greek Orthodox Church’s traditions, a priest will bless the waters by throwing a cross into it as worshippers try to retrieve it.

6. In Bulgaria too, Eastern Orthodox priests throw a cross in the sea and the men dive in – competing to get to it first.

7. In Venice a traditional regatta that started as a joke in the late 70s has been incorporated in the celebrations of Epiphany Day.

8. In Prague, there is a traditional Three Kings swim to commemorate Epiphany Day at the Vltava River.

9. In New York, El Museo del Barrio has celebrated and promoted the Three Kings’ Day tradition with an annual parade for more than three decades. Thousands take part in the procession featuring camels, colorful puppets and floats.

10. The day’s activities involve singing holiday carols called aguinaldos.

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