Known also as Old Christmas Day and Twelfthtide.
Epiphany of Our Lord, one of the oldest Christian feasts, is observed in Roman Catholic churches in the US on a Sunday between January 2nd and 8th.
When is Epiphany?
Though overshadowed by falling so soon after Christmas, Epiphany is one of the three major Christian celebrations along with Christmas and Easter.
It is always celebrated on January 6th and commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus to the Magi or the three wise men, the first Gentile recognition of Christ.. In some countries, it may be known as 'Three Kings Day'.
History of Epiphany
Interestingly, the bible doesn't mention how many wise men there were - just that three gifts were given and that they came from the east.
The common consensus is that there were between two and twenty wise men. They were likely to have been Zoroastrian Priests. It wasn't until about 500AD that three was accepted to be the standard number of wise men - the reasoning simply due to the number of gifts.
To further complicate matters, the wise men may not even have been men or wise. In 2004, a report by the general synod of the church of England concluded that 'magi' gives no indication as to number, or gender, or even to the level of wisdom.
The distinct lack of Biblical detail hasn't stopped the Magi being counted, coronated and christened - the traditional names of the threes kings are Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, who are said to represent Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively.
Epiphany is derived from the Greek word 'epiphaneia' and means manifestation. In religious use, the term means the appearance of an invisible divine being in a visible form.
The celebration of the Epiphany began in the Eastern Church and included a celebration of Christ's birth. However, by the 4th century AD, the various calendar reforms had moved the birth of Christ to December 25th and the church in Rome began celebrating January 6th as Epiphany. Armenian Orthodox Christians still celebrate the birth of Christ on January 6th as their Church was established before Rome made the date change.
Epiphany around the world
In Denmark, Epiphany was abolished as an official church festival in 1770. However, the previous evening, Twelfth Night, is celebrated in some homes by burning a special Twelfth Night candle with three wicks. When the candles thus go out, it symbolises the end of Christmas. Only a few locations in Denmark still celebrate the evening with a procession where people in fancy dress and go from house to house.
As Epiphany is not a public holiday in France, the traditions are instead observed on the first Sunday in January. Since the 14th-century people in France have eaten a cake called La galette des Rois to celebrate Epiphany. According to the tradition, the cake must be divided so that each guest gets a slice, plus an extra slice called the part du Bon Dieu/ Vierge/ Pauvre (Good Lord / Virgin / Poor ) which is kept in reserve should any unexpected stranger turn up. The cake is typically bought in a boulangerie and made of puff pastry with an almond filling. A charm is often hidden in the cake. The Lucky person that finds the charm then becomes the king or queen for the day.
As you travel east in Europe, water plays a more important in Epiphany celebrations with the throwing of a wooden cross into the sea to see who can recover it first a common tradition in Greece and Bulgaria.
The Orthodox Church celebrates Epiphany on January 19th, though the festival commemorates the baptism of Jesus (explaining the water festivities) by John the Baptist rather than the visit of the Magi. Jesus was baptised when he was about 30 years old, so Orthodox Epiphany has little to do with the Christmas story, though it still marks the end of the Christmas cycle.
Italy has gone in quite a different direction with Epiphany. It is the visit of a witch rather than kings which is the focus of festivities. Befana is an old soot-covered woman or witch who delivers presents to Italian children on the night before Epiphany.
In Mexico, children receive presents on Epiphany rather than Christmas Day.