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The Day of Epiphany - January 6

Updated on July 9, 2015

On January 6, many countries - especially those who are predominantly Roman Catholic in Europe and Latin America - celebrate Epiphany.This day was created into a celebration in 361 AD and remembers two events in the life of Jesus Christ: the visit of the wise men and his baptism (remembering Jesus's baptism for Epiphany is generally remembered in the Middle East and Mediterranean, whereas the wise men are remembered in Europe and the Americas).

The word epiphany comes from a greek word epiphania which means "manifestation." The Day of Epiphany originally celebrated Jesus's birth (the day that God manifested himself on earth in the form of his son). This changed after the celebration of Jesus's birth was moved to December 25, leaving the Day of Epiphany open for a new meaning.

Many people celebrate Epiphany as the 12th day of Christmas and many will remove their Christmas trees on this day, and in some countries - burn them.

The Visit of the Magi (Wise Men, Three Kings)

Though the Bible doesn't give a number for the wise men that visited Jesus, traditionally they have been numbered as "three" because they are known for bringing three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Since the Gospel of Matthew told the story of the visiting magi almost in the same breath as the story of Jesus's birth, one possible misconception is that they visited Jesus immediately after his birth, whereas many Biblical scholars believe that he was a little older (closer to the age of two). This could be the reason why the visit of the Magi is celebrated some time after Christmas.

Theories abound about who the wise men were and from where they came, but many point to the gifts and see some symbolism in them: Gold is a gift that was fit for a King (Jesus would be called the "King of Kings"), Frankincense is harvested by "whipping" a tree and collecting the resin that bleeds out (Jesus was whipped) and Myrrh was commonly used for embalming (and was used when Jesus died).

In some parts of Europe, communities will select three young people who will represent the wise men by walking though the streets with banners and singing carols. In Spain, children go one step further by waiting with gifts to give to the magi when they arrive.

Jesus's Baptism

The story of Jesus's baptism is found in Matthew 3. John the Baptist was baptizing his followers and disciples when Jesus asked to be baptized. At first, John refused, but when Jesus pressed, John relented. After Jesus came out of the water, a dove descended upon him and a voice from heaven spoke saying, "This is my loved son, in whom I am pleased."

In the Middle East and Mediterranean, this is often celebrated by having a priest sprinkling holy water home to home, followed by a procession of singers. Priests also may throw a cross into the sea, after which divers search for it. The person who surfaces with it first is given gifts and honor.

Since 1903, the people of Tarpon Springs, Florida have held a celebration for the day of Epiphany. Every year, many Greeks and others who want to enjoy the holiday journey to this town for the three day event as the town works to match the festivities held in Italy every year.

Possibly the most exciting event is the "Blessing of the Bayou" in which the Archbishop throws a cross into the bayou and blesses the waters. After he is done, a procession of swimmers dive into the water and search for the cross and the finder is said to receive a blessing.

In Egypt, people believe that the water of the Nile is purest on the day of Epiphany. Many Egyptians will store the water on that day to be used throughout the year while others will bathe in it or bathe their animals in it to experience a blessing.

The day of Epiphany also traditionally is the day that Greek sailors will return to the sea as it is considered bad luck to sail between Christmas and the Day of Epiphany (when the waters are blessed.)

A Fancy Twelfth Cake
A Fancy Twelfth Cake | Source

King's Cake or Twelfth Cake

Though King's Cake is also commonly eaten during Mardi Gras festivals, many countries and communities still partake of it on the day of Epiphany. Traditionally, the cake is a round bundt-style cake or pastry (to symbolize the circular route the wise men took to escape from King Herod) that has had a plastic baby figurine placed inside of it. The person who happens to receive that portion of the cake or pastry is traditionally rewarded with the task of providing the cake the next year or given another privilege, gift or obligation.

Other countries (such as England) and communities may celebrate Epiphany with a different cake called "Twelfth Cake." This may be accompanied with a game that involves drawing a card with your rank or roll for the party.

La Befana

Italian Traditions: Epifania and La Befana

In addition to many religious ceremonies, Italy also traditionally celebrates the coming a La Befana, a witch who flies around on the night of January 5th to give presents to good children and coal to bad children by placing them into their stockings. She is possibly the inspiration behind Santa Clause giving coal to disobedient children.

As the story goes, La Befana was a witch at the time that Jesus was born and was visited by the wise men the night before they found the baby. The witch was asked for directions and she gave them, but declared she was too busy when asked if she would like to join the traveling party.

Later she looked outside her window and saw a bright star and got on her broom to catch up to the wise men, taking with her gifts from her own child who had died. She never found the wise men or the baby Jesus. The story goes that she is still searching for him and will continue to give presents and coal until she finds him.

On the day of Epiphany, in Vatican City, a procession brings gifts to the pope, while in many other cities in Italy, there are much smaller parades symbolizing the wise men coming to see the newborn king.


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