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What is Epiphany or Little Christmas or Twelfth Night?

Updated on January 3, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has spent 30 years working in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, and aerospace education for Active USAF Civil Air Patrol.


An Undergound Christmas

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas,

My true love gave to me: 12 Drummers Drumming...

The 12 Drummers are the tenets of the Christian's Nicene Creed and this is the beloved Christmas carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. It was originally thought to be a school child's counting song, but was not. It was written specifically as a coded message for remembering the Birth of Jesus Christ and the spread of the Gospel, when celebrating these events was outlawed in the UK and the American Colonies, along with celebratory icons like mince pie.

The Twelfth Night of Christmas

On Day Twelve, We Have at Least Three Holiday Events

Epiphany - The day chosen to commemorate the Wise Men's visit to the infant Jesus, opening the eyes of the world to the newborn Messiah. Epiphany is that revelation.

Little Christmas - Christmas on the old calendar and as celebrated by Orthodox Churches - Greek, Serbian, Ukrainian, some Armenian, and several others. The services are lovely, full of soft candlelight and tinkling small bells. Another, overlapping, holiday to this one in Ukraine is Malanka, with celebrations lasting through January 19th or 20th -- New Year's is 20 days long!

Twelfth Night - A party night that is the beginning of the Mardi Gras season running up to Fat Tuesday, the day in which all fats are are to be removed from the house traditionally for the 40 days (giving up fats for Lent). In parts of England and the Northeastern US, Fat Tuesday is celebrated with Pancake Races, commemorating the use of all the butter and such in the house - people make pancakes and run with their skillets to place the pancakes at the race's endpoint.


The Maji journeying after the Star of Bethlehem.
The Maji journeying after the Star of Bethlehem. | Source

The Three Wise Men saved the life of the infant Jesus in not reporting his whereabouts to King Herod. They did, however, open the eyes of the people to the Messiah-hood of Jesus. This is indeed a big event in Christian church history, this Epiphany.

January 6 is the date of the Christian Festival called Epiphany. It is the date that Christianity has selected to commemorate the manifestation of the infant Jesus as The Christ, the Messiah of the Old Testament - made clear by the visit of the Magi, or Three Wise Men. According to custom and literature, though, the number three often represented a dozen - sometimes more. This would be even better, poetically, matching the Twelve Disciples later in the life of Baby Jesus.

Epiphany is celebrated by certain Greek, Russian and Serbian Orthodox churches on January 19, by the old calendar; although it is though the festival is held most widely by most churches on January 6.

Be as that as all may be, the public did not realize that Jesus as a baby was the Messiah until the wise men came from the East with gifts for the child.

Popularly, Epiphany is also called Three King's Day and other names.

As a church season of the year, Epiphany is often observed from January 6 through Ash Wednesday, whereupon the church season becomes Lent for 40 days. However, some congregations celebrate only a single day of Epiphany.

Different colors of paraments (altar décor) are placed on and around the altar of the church during each church season, and they are changed for Lent. Many churches use gold and white throughout Advent (Christmas, the arrival of the Lord) and Epiphany, changing to green for Lent, though some congregations use other colors for their church seasons.

The New Testament Scripture of the Epiphany visit fo the Wise Men to the infant Jesus is recorded below in Young's Literal Translation, which is in the public domain.

We often see the Little Drummer Boy with a Revolutionary War or Civil War type drum, but the one in this image is more like that of of the time and place of the Advent.  Similar drums come form ancient China as well.
We often see the Little Drummer Boy with a Revolutionary War or Civil War type drum, but the one in this image is more like that of of the time and place of the Advent. Similar drums come form ancient China as well. | Source

Matthew 2:1-12

1And Jesus having been born in Beth-Lehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, lo, mages from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, `Where is he who was born king of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and we came to bow to him.'

3And Herod the king having heard, was stirred, and all Jerusalem with him, 4and having gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he was inquiring from them where the Christ is born.

5And they said to him, `In Beth-Lehem of Judea, for thus it hath been written through the prophet, 6And thou, Beth-Lehem, the land of Judah, thou art by no means the least among the leaders of Judah, for out of thee shall come one leading, who shall feed My people Israel.'

7Then Herod, privately having called the mages, did inquire exactly from them the time of the appearing star, 8and having sent them to Beth-Lehem, he said, `Having gone -- inquire ye exactly for the child, and whenever ye may have found, bring me back word, that I also having come may bow to him.'

9And they, having heard the king, departed, and lo, the star, that they did see in the east, did go before them, till, having come, it stood over where the child was.

10And having seen the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy, 11and having come to the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and having fallen down they bowed to him, and having opened their treasures, they presented to him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, 12and having been divinely warned in a dream not to turn back unto Herod, through another way they withdrew to their own region.

Little Christmas

To the churches that celebrate Christmas by an older calendar than those of us who commemorate December 25th, January 6 is Christmas.

Some people call the holiday on January 6 Little Christmas. Others call it Old Christmas, referencing the old calendar.

In fact, some families celebrate both Christmas dates, having a full Twelve Days of Christmas between them. In many places these 12 days lead up to the beginning of Mardi Gras preparation with weekly parties after the 12th Night is celebrated.

A Shakespearean play is titled Twelfth Night and is one of my favorites.

My first Russian teacher celebrated both Christmases, one at school with students and the second at home with her mother and family, along with other Russians and Ukrainians in my city. This is where I first heard of the Orthodox Church Calendar and Little Christmas.

Even Jewish Ukrainians I knew kept a Christmas tree on the second floor of their homes until the January date, the menorah being downstairs, although this was not the usual custom among the Jewish community at large. This particular congregation honored both Hanukkah and the Christ Child in their own way.

Holy Icons of the Nativity in Orthodox churches are beautifully done and often many centuries old - museum pieces, really.

Holy icons at art pieces gather additional attention from visitors during Advent.

All of the Holy Icons are called "Windows of Heaven.".

Holy Icons in Orthodoxy

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Holy TrinityMadonna and ChildRussian Orthodox icon showing wisdom and steps to Heaven.
The Holy Trinity
The Holy Trinity | Source
Madonna and Child
Madonna and Child | Source
Russian Orthodox icon showing wisdom and steps to Heaven.
Russian Orthodox icon showing wisdom and steps to Heaven. | Source

Prelude to Mardi Gras

Masques for Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras
Masques for Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras | Source

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is the twelfth night of Christmas in the Christmas carol and twelve days after December 25. Traditionally, it may be either January 5 or 6, depending on whether the community counts days or nights of Christmas. Looking at the night of festivities, we can see a blending of church and secular activities and attitudes.

Invitation in New Orleans used in 1884.
Invitation in New Orleans used in 1884. | Source

Masquerade parties can be fun all year round and Twelfth Night is a grand time of parties and parades in New Orleans. This night marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras season with weekly masqued balls, while the Krewes build their floats for the Mardi Gras Parade on Fat Tuesday Night. The week before Fat Tuesday, parties and even parades are held every evening. Ash Wednesday follows the big Tuesday parade, with church services and the sacrifice of luxuries for 40 days in many congregations in the Catholic Church, and within some other denominations.

Some non-denominational churches have given up a variety of luxuries for Lent, although in the Catholic Church, meat became one usual item given up annually for a period of years (along with Friday abstinence from meat all year), and the original sacrifice was all the fats in the house.

For 40 days, some non-denominational congregations have given up any of the following: the Internet, magazine subscriptions, extra phone lines, the more-expensive daily coffee drinks at coffee shops, weekly hair and nail appointments, ice cream, candy, movies, and dozens of others on a long list for 40 days. Some give up television and never turn it on again. However, some of these churches have a party on what the world calls Fat Tuesday, too. Food, treats, music, and all kinds of activities are offered before the period of 40-days sacrifice. This is a bit similar to Twelfth Night festivities, although costumes are not usually worn.

The banishment of fats from the family home must have made cooking more difficult in the days of wood stoves and cooking fires. What was bread like without shortening? -- Much like the unleavened bread of the Passover very likely; not that it was flat like matzo, but less tasty - bland.

Fatty beef was likely not used at all, but pork provides its own fats/grease and perhaps this is how families were able to cook. A chicken or pheasant might be roasted over a fire, though, and the duck and goose offered additional fat (well known to our First Peoples friends). I suspect boiled vegetables, some sort of bread or cracker, occasional fowl or meat, and perhaps some preserved fruit took people through the remains of winter up to Easter or Resurrection Sunday.These 40 days of sacrifice were seen as a duty long ago.

All in all, Lent was a difficult time in which the people of the church contemplated the Advent of Jesus specifically to die at the end of Lent to be Resurrected. It was and is mind-boggling to many people not of this specific Faith.

© 2012 Patty Inglish MS

Twelfth Night Parties and Other Comments

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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Happy Birthday early, J-R-Fr13m9n!

    • J - R - Fr13m9n profile image

      Jane Ramona Rynkiewicz Frieman 

      7 years ago from Morris County, New Jersey

      Very interesting and informative hub. I was born on January 6th and I still can recall my mother saying on my birthday, "It's Three Kings Day"!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Visiting more services than I knew would happen, I found them on January 4,5,6,7, and 8. Epiphany was celebrated in some churches on Sunday the 8th as the anniversary of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      hahaha, Patty, you make sure you get the full treat. Thank you for a very informative hub. Happy New Year.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      I'll be going to Orthodox services in January as well, so I'll have two Christmases and will report back.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 

      9 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      Patty, this is a wonderful HUB... I pray you had a great Christmas and Happy New Year.

      So glad you sharing about Our lord.

      I voted up and Awesome and beautiful Like our Lord.

      God Bless you for writing this


    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Cardisa - This year, we've seen a couple magazine articles on pancake races and their origin and about 10 years ago I saw one, so the information is not shared consistently. That's one way history is forgotten and why I like museum programs and church history classes.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Hi jeyaramd - A lot of connecting events bind several months of holidays together, tho many people don't know it yet.

    • Cardisa profile image

      Carolee Samuda 

      9 years ago from Jamaica

      Wow, I had no idea what these meant, just like the previous hub similar to this one. I also didn't know that fat was banished from the house during lent, I always thought it was only red meat that was given up during this period.

      I feel so ignorant to these things as a Christian. We have only been touching the surface of the truth about our Christian history.

    • jeyaramd profile image


      9 years ago from Mississauga, Ontario

      Thank you for this hub.I did not realize that there was so much meaning attached to the 12 days of christmas. What an insightful research article. Just in time for new year makes it all the more special. Thanks Patty Inglish. Happy new year to you and your family.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      This is why I like the Interlinear and side-by-side Bibles with original languages and customs offered in the margins. Lots of info we need to know.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 

      9 years ago from Indiana

      Very insightful hub. I was not aware of:

      "According to custom and literature, though, the number three often represented a dozen - sometimes more."

      - that's very interesting!

      Thanks for sharing this.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      9 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Lots of traditions seem to come together on January 5-6. Thanks for reading and posting, Greenhousewife!

    • Greenhousewife profile image


      9 years ago

      Great hub! My birthday is on the epiphany and we always leave the christmas tree up until then, which is funny because I had never heard of Little Christmas until now! Thanks for sharing!


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