Epiphany (Greek: επιφάνεια, "appearance" or "manifestation") is a Christian feast intended to celebrate the "shining forth" or revelation of God to mankind in human form, in the person of Jesus. Some Christians commemorate the visitation of the Magi to the child Jesus on this day, while others use the day to commemorate the baptism of Jesus as an adult. The feast is also called Twelfth Day — being the twelfth day after Christmas — or Three Kings Day for those commemorating the Magi. It is also called Theophany, especially by those commemorating Christ's baptism.


The observance had its origins in the Eastern Christian Churches, and was originally a general celebration of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and included the commemoration of: his birth; the visit of the Magi, or "Wise Men", who arrived in Bethlehem; all of Jesus' childhood events, up to and including his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist; and even the miracle at the Wedding of Cana in Galilee. However, it seems fairly clear that the Baptism was the event predominantly commemorated.[1]

The date of the feast was very early fixed on January 6. Ancient Liturgies speak of Illuminatio, Manifestatio, Declaratio (Lighting, Manifestation, Declaration); cf. Matthew 3:13–17; Luke 3:22; and John 2:1–11; where the Baptism and the Marriage at Cana are dwelt upon. Christian Churches have traditionally emphasized the "Revelation to the Gentiles" mentioned in Luke, where the term Gentile means all non-Jewish peoples. The Biblical Magi represent the non-Jewish peoples of the world.

The earliest reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast was in the year 361, by Ammianus Marcellinus[2] St. Epiphanius says that the January 6 is hemera genethlion toutestin epiphanion (Christ's "Birthday; that is, His Epiphany").[3] He also asserts that the miracle at Cana occurred on the same calendar day.[4]

In 385, the pilgrim Egeria (Silvia) describes a celebration in Jerusalem and Bethlehem on January 6 that obviously commemorates the Nativity of Christ.[5] Even at this early date, there is already an octave associated with the feast.

In a sermon delivered on December 25, 380, St. Gregory of Nazianzus somewhat confusingly refers to the day as ta theophania ("the Theophany", an alternative name for Epiphany) saying expressly that it is a day commmemorating he hagia tou Christou gennesis ("the holy nativity of Christ") and tells his listeners that they will soon be celebrating the baptism of Christ.[6] Then, on January 6 and 7, he preached two more sermons[7] wherein he declared that the celebration of the birth of Christ and the visitation of the Magi had already taken place, and that they would now commemorate his Baptism.[8] So at this point the two celebrations are beginning to be separated, at least in Cappadocia.

However, this was not the case everywhere. Saint John Cassian says that even in his time (beginning of the 5th century) the Egyptian monasteries still celebrated the Nativity and Baptism together on January 6.[9] The Armenian Apostolic Church still continues to celebrate January 6 as the only commemoration of the Nativity.

Epiphany in different Christian ritesEdit

Epiphany is celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Churches, but a major difference between them is over precisely which historical events the feast commemorates. For Western Christians the feast primarily commemorates the coming of the Magi, while in the East the feast celebrates the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan. However, in both cases the essence of the feast is the same: the manifestation of Christ to the world (whether as an infant or in the Jordan), and the Mystery of the Incarnation.

Western Christian Churches Edit

By the year 534 the Western Church had separated out the celebration of the Nativity of Christ into the feast of Christmas and set its date as December 25, reserving January 6 as a commemoration of the coming of the Magi. The East continued to celebrate January 6 as a composite feast, only later adopting December 25 to commemorate both Jesus' birth and the coming of the Magi, but leaving January 6 as a commemoration of his Baptism.However comprehensively and unanimously today the epiphany day is symbolic of God's Incarnation in Jesus Christ and the star that led the Magi to the the Holy Child with the three gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh ; all symbolic about the different facets of Jesus's Life on earth.

Liturgical PracticeEdit

The West generally acknowledges a twelve-day festival, starting on December 25, and ending on January 5, known as Christmastide or the twelve days of Christmas, although some Christian cultures, especially those of Latin America and some in Europe extend it to as many as forty days, ending on Candlemas (February 2).

On the Feast of the Epiphany itself, the priest, wearing white vestments, will bless the Epiphany Water, frankincense, gold, and chalk. Chalk is used to write the initials of the three magi over the doors of churches and homes. Not only do the letters stand for the initials of the Magi (traditionally named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar), but of the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates as "may Christ bless the house".

Date of CommemorationEdit

Prior to the reforms of 1970, the Roman Catholic Church (and prior to 1976, the Anglican churches) celebrated Epiphany as an eight-day feast beginning on January 6 and continuing through the Octave of Epiphany, or January 13. Many continue to use this calendar, celebrating the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday within the octave.

More recently, many Americans mark Epiphany on the Sunday after the first Saturday in January (before this the Sunday between January 1 and January 6 in years when there was one, was designated the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus), and most Roman Catholics in the United States (along with many Protestants) now formally end the Christmas season with the Baptism of the Lord, after which the first period of Ordinary Time begins. (But note that some Churches, such as the Anglican Catholic Church, and Traditional Roman Catholics in the United States and other countries (e.g., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Vatican City), still maintain the pre-1970 calendar; for these bodies, Christmas still has twelve days and ends on January 5, and Epiphany is still celebrated on January 6 with an 8-day octave.) Since 2007 the Roman Catholic Church in England & Wales celebrates the Epiphany on the Sunday closest to 6 January; though in celebrations of the 'extraordinary form' of the Roman Rite (the so-called Tridentine Mass), the feast continues to be observed on January 6.

In the Church of England, the Epiphany is classified as a Principal Feast and is observed on 6 January or on the Sunday between 2 and 8 January. There is also an Epiphany season, observed between the season of Christmas and the first period of Ordinary Time. It begins at Evening Prayer on the Eve of the Epiphany and ends at Evening Prayer (or Night Prayer) on the Feast of the Presentation (which may be celebrated on 2 February or the Sunday between 28 January and 3 February).

Eastern Christian ChurchesEdit

Usually called the Feast of Theophany (Greek: Θεοφάνεια, "God shining forth" or "divine manifestation"), it is one of the Great Feasts of the liturgical year, being third in rank, behind only Pascha (Easter) and Pentecost in importance. Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany on January 6 (the date of January 6 on the Julian Calendar used by most Orthodox falls on January 19 of the modern Gregorian Calendar).

The first reference to the feast in the Eastern Church is a remark by St. Clement of Alexandria in Stromateis, I, xxi, 45:

And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day… And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings. And they say that it was the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, the fifteenth day of the month Tubi; and some that it was the eleventh of the same month.

(The 11th and 15th of Tubi are January 6th and 10th respectively.)

Origen's list of festivals (in Contra Celsum, VIII, xxii) omits any reference to Epiphany. The first reference to an ecclesiastical feast of the Epiphany, in Ammianus Marcellinus (XXI:ii), is in 361.

Today in Eastern Orthodox churches, the emphasis at this feast is on the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and second person of the Holy Trinity at the time of his baptism. It is also celebrated because, according to tradition, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist marked the only occasion when all three persons of the Holy Trinity manifested their physical presence simultaneously to humanity: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, God the Son being baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove descending from heaven. Thus the holy day is considered to be a Trinitarian feast.

The Orthodox consider Jesus' Baptism to be the first step towards the Crucifixion, and there are some parallels in the hymnography used on this day and the hymns chanted on Good Friday.

Liturgical PracticeEdit

Forefeast The liturgical Forefeast of Theophany begins on January 1, and concludes with the Paramony on January 5.

Paramony The Eve of the Feast is called Paramony (Greek: παραμονή, Slavonic: navechérie). Paramony is observed as a strict fast day, on which those faithful who are physically able, refrain from food until the first star is observed in the evening, when a meal with wine and oil may be taken. On this day the Royal Hours are celebrated, thus tying together the feasts of Nativity and Good Friday. The Royal Hours are followed by the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil which combines Vespers with the Divine Liturgy. During the Vespers, fifteen Old Testament lections which foreshadow the Baptism of Christ are read, and special antiphons are chanted. If the Feast of the Theophany falls on a Sunday or Monday, the Royal Hours are chanted on the previous Friday, and on the Paramony the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated and the fasting is lessened to some degree.

Blessing of Waters The Orthodox Churches perform the Great Blessing of the Waters on Theophany. The blessing is normally done twice: once on the Eve of the Feast—usually at a font inside the church—and then again on the day of the feast outdoors at a body of water. Following the Divine Liturgy, the clergy and people go in a Crucession (procession with the cross) to the nearest body of water, be it a beach, harbor, quay, river, lake, swimming pool, water depot, etc., and after a short ceremony the priest will bless the waters. In the Greek practice, he does this by casting a cross into the water. If swimming is feasible on the spot, any number of volunteers may brave the cold winter waters and try to recover the cross. The person who gets the cross first swims back and returns it to the priest, who then delivers a special blessing to the swimmer and their household. Certain such ceremonies have achieved particular prominence, such as the one held annually at Tarpon Springs, Florida. In Russia, where the winters are severe, a hole will be cut into the ice so that the waters may be blessed. In such conditions, the cross is not cast into the water, but is held securely by the priest and dipped three times into the water.

The water that is blessed on this day is known as "Theophany Water" and is taken home by the faithful, and used with prayer as a blessing. People will not only bless themselves and their homes by sprinkling with Theophany Water, but will also drink it. The Orthodox Church teaches that Theophany Water differs from regular Holy Water in that with Theophany Water, the very nature of the water is changed and becomes incorrupt,[10] a miracle attested to as early as St. John Chrysostom.[11]

Theophany is a traditional day for performing Baptisms, and this is reflected in the Divine Liturgy by singing the baptismal hymn, "As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia," in place of the Trisagion.

House Blessings On Theophany the priest will begin making the round of the parishioner's homes to bless them. He will perform a short prayer service in each home, and then go through the entire house, gardens and outside-buildings, blessing them with the newly-blessed Theophany Water, while all sing the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast. This is normally done on Theophany, or at least during the Afterfeast, but if the parishioners are numerous, and especially if many live far away from the church, it may take some time to bless each house. Traditionally, these blessings should all be finished before the beginning of Great Lent).

The Feast of Theophany is followed by an eight-day festival on which the normal fasting laws are suspended. The Saturday and Sunday after Theophany have special readings assigned to them, which relate to the Temptation of Christ and to penance and perseverance in the Christian struggle. There is thus a liturgical continuum between the Feast of Theophany and Great Lent.

Oriental Christian ChurchesEdit

Timket Ceremony Gondar Ethio

A priest is holding a Tabot in a Timket (Epiphany) ceremony at Gondar, Ethiopia, at which water will be blessed.

Main article: Timkat

In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the feast is known as Timkat and is celebrated on January 19 (or January 20 if that year is a Leap Year according to the Ethiopian calendar). The celebration of this feast features Blessing of Waters and solemn processions with the sacred Tabot.

Among the Syriac Christians the feast is called denho (up-going), a name to be connected with the notion of rising light expressed in Luke 1:78.

In the Armenian Church, January 6 is celebrated as the Nativity (Sourp Dznount) and Theophany of Christ. The feast is preceded by a seven-day fast. On the eve of the feast, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. This Liturgy is referred to as the Jrakaloutz Badarak (the Eucharist of the lighting of the lamps) in honor of the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God. This Liturgy is followed by a Blessing of Waters, during which the cross is immersed in the water, symbolizing Jesus' descent into the Jordan, and holy muron (chrism) poured in, symbolic of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. The next morning, after the Liturgy, the cross is removed from the vessel of Holy Water and all come forward to kiss the cross and partake of the blessed water.

Local CustomsEdit

In Rome, "Epiphania" was transformed into Befana, the great fair held at that season, when sigillaria of terracotta or baked pastry were sold (Macrobius I, x, xxiv; II, xlix).

In some European cultures, the greenery put up at Christmas is taken down at Epiphany, in other cultures it remains up until the Meeting of the Lord (February 2).

The Irish call this day Little Christmas or "Women's Christmas" (Irish: Nollaig na mBan).

The Dutch call this day Driekoningendag (Three Kings' Day).

In France, on Epiphany people eat the gâteau des Rois in Provence or the galette des Rois in the northern half of France and Belgium. This is a kind of king cake, with a trinket or a bean hidden inside. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes king for a year.

In Portugal, Epiphany, on 6 January, is called dia dos Reis (day of the kings), during which the traditional Bolo Rei (King cake) is baked and eaten.

In Spain, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and some other Latin American countries Epiphany day is called El Día de los Reyes (The Day of the Kings), i.e., the day when a group of Kings or Magi, as related in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew, arrived to worship and bring three gifts to the baby Jesus after following a star in the heavens. This day is sometimes known as the Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (The day of the Three Royal Magi) or La Pascua de los Negros (Holy Day of the Blackmen) in Chile, although the latter is rarely heard. In Spanish tradition, on the day of January 6th, three of the Kings: Melchor, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representing Europe, Arabia, and Africa, arrived on horse, camel and elephant, bringing respectively gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.

In Spain, Argentina, and Uruguay, children (and many adults) polish and leave their shoes ready for the Kings' presents before they go to bed on the 5th of January. Sweet wine, nibbles, fruit and milk are left for the Kings and their camels. In Mexico, it is traditional for children to leave their shoes on the eve of January 6 by the family nativity scene or by their beds. Also a letter with toy requests is left and sometimes the shoes are filled with hay for the camels, so that the Kings will be generous with their gifts. In Puerto Rico, it is traditional for children to fill a box with grass or hay and put it underneath their bed, for the same reasons. In some parts of northern Mexico the shoes are left under the Christmas tree with a letter to the Three Kings. This is analogous to children leaving mince pies or cookies and milk out for Father Christmas in Western Europe.

In the afternoon or evening of the same day the ritual of the Rosca de Reyes is shared with family and friends. The Rosca is a type of sweet-bread made with orange blossom water and butter, and decorated with candied fruit. Baked inside is a small doll representing the baby Jesus. The person who finds the doll in his piece of rosca must throw a party on February 2nd, "Candelaria Day," offering tamales and atole (a hot sweet drink thickened with corn flour) to the guests. In Spain, the bread is known as Roscón; made with the same items, traditionally the roscón was simply a round sweetbread with candied fruit on top, however, recently, different flavoured whipped creams are used as filling. The 'Jesus' doll evolved into a small toy similar to a Kinder Surprise it also includes a bean. The person who gets the toy is then crowned king for the day, while the person who finds the bean is responsible for paying for the Roscon.

In Louisiana, Epiphany is the beginning of the Mardi Gras season, during which it is customary to bake King Cakes, similar to the Rosca mentioned above. The one who finds the doll (or bean) must provide the next king cake. The interval between Epiphany and Mardi Gras is sometimes known as "king cake season."


  1. Cyril Martindale, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 5 (Robert Appleton Company, New York 1905), s.v., Epiphany.
  2. Ammianus Marcellinus, XXI, ii.
  3. Epiphanius, Haer., li, 27, in P.G., XLI, 936
  4. Ibid., chapters xxviii and xxix P.G., XLI, 940 sq.
  5. Perigrin. Silviae, ed. Geyer, c.xxvi.
  6. St. Gregory Nazianzus, Oration xxxviii in Patrologia Graecae (P.G.), XXXVI. 312
  7. Ibid., Orations xxxix and xl P.G., loc. cit.
  8. Ibid. col. 349.
  9. St. John Cassian, Conferences, X, 2, in P.L., XLIX; 820
  10. On Holy Water by St. John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco
  11. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Bapt. Chr. in P.G., XLIX, 363.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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