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Three Kings Day Celebrations and Traditions

Updated on January 8, 2018
Elyn MacInnis profile image

Elyn spent the last 30 years in China, coming home in the summer to cook American food and have fun doing craft projects with her family.

The Epiphany - Three Kings Day

Epiphany! Time for a party! In many countries around the world, Epiphany - Three Kings Day - is the last day of the celebration of the Christmas season.

Three predominant themes influence Epiphany - Three Kings Day:

* Gift giving - from the tradition of the gifts of the Wise Men to Jesus

* Festive "Kings' Cakes" which date back to 12th century France,

*and a Party to close the Christmas season.

Here you will find some history, a recipe for King's Cake, and more.

This beautiful picture is in the public domain. The original artwork is by Fra Angelico and Francisco Lippi who painted it in the 1400s. You can see the original at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio - public domain)
Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio - public domain)

What does Epiphany mean?

*manifestation, *shining forth, *revealing"

Epiphany is the traditional Greek name for Three Kings Day, celebrating the arrival of Three Wise Men who traveled "from the East" to pay homage to the baby Jesus. The day has been celebrated on January 6 since the 300s AD in churches from both the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity.

For Western churches, the arrival of the three wise kings to worship the baby Jesus is commemorated, and for the Eastern churches the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan is celebrated. What is the connection? Both of these traditions are celebrating the manifestation, or revealing, of Christ to the whole world, not just to the smaller community of people where he was born. The Eastern churches see it in Jesus' baptism, the Western in the arrival of the Kings-Wise Men from afar.

Adoration of the Three Kings - by William Stetter 1546
Adoration of the Three Kings - by William Stetter 1546

Celebrating the arrival of the Three Wise Men - January 6th

The feast and the party

In Britain, Epiphany is called "Twelfth Night," because it is the last of the twelve days of Christmas. Traditionally a special cake or sweet bread is baked, and often special good luck tokens will be put inside the treat: a bean, a coin, or a small figurine.

The person who gets the good luck token in the special Twelfth Night cake made in British homes will become the King or Queen for the night, and will be the leader for the merry-making. In some countries, especially in Latin America and to some extent in Europe, the Epiphany season lasts for as many as forty days, ending on the church holiday of Candlemas. In other countries, it marks the beginning of Mardi Gras, and extends until Ash Wednesday. That's a long time to party... but the biggest party night for most is the night of the 6th of January.

Gift giving is another traditional activity for Epiphany and Three Kings Day. In Ireland the day is considered a day of rest for the women, who have had to do a lot of cooking during the Christmas season. They are often given gifts by their families on this day. In other countries, this is the day for giving gifts to children. Three Kings traditionally appear on horseback in the Philippines, and pass out candy and small gifts to children, who may also leave their shoes out so that the Three Kings will leave gifts for them while they sleep. Puerto Rican children leave grass in their shoes for the camels of the Wise Men, who take out the grass and leave gifts in its place at night when they are sleeping.

Brioche of the Magi (King cake), with fruits confits, from Toulon; this kind is kings' cake is more common in the southeast than the northern-kind galette
Brioche of the Magi (King cake), with fruits confits, from Toulon; this kind is kings' cake is more common in the southeast than the northern-kind galette

Three Kings Cake Galore!

Each country has a different version. The larger one is from Toulon, in the south of France. There is an excellent page at Wikipedia that shows several different versions of Kings' Cakes.

New Orleans Kings Cake
New Orleans Kings Cake

This is a classic Kings Cake recipe from the US. Cakes in Europe often come with a gold crown on top. You could decorate your cake with a crown. or you could decorate it with colored sugars like they do in New Orleans. The colors look wild - but represent royalty, so they are usually purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power)-to honor the three kings who visited the Christ child on Epiphany. Can you see the baby in the middle? Once the cake is cool, you can poke the baby into the cake as the good luck token, but watch your teeth!

Cook Time

Prep Time: 2 hours plus

Total Time: less than three hours including cooking

Serves: Many if you cut small pieces

Ingredients

  • one 16-ounce container sour cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup butter (half of a stick or 4 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 (1/4-ounce) envelopes active dry yeast
  • added to
  • 1/2 cup warm water (cooled to 100° to 110°) with
  • 1 tablespoon sugar dissolved in it.
  • 2 large lightly beaten eggs
  • 6 to 6 1/2 cups bread flour (all-purpose works too)
  • 1/3 cup softened butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • or some jam
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon mace

Instructions

  1. Cook the sour cream, sugar, butter and salt, stirring, over low heat until the butter melts. Set aside, and cool mixture to 100° to 110°.
  2. Activate the yeast by mixing with 1/2 cup warm water, and 1 tablespoon of the sugar and let it stand for 5 minutes.
  3. Beat sour cream mixture, yeast, eggs, and 2 cups of flour until smooth. Gradually add enough remaining flour (4 to 4 1/2 cups) until a soft dough forms.
  4. Knead the dough on a floured surface until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place in a well-greased and oiled bowl, turning the dough so that the oiled part is on the top..
  5. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts, 1 hour or until dough is doubled in bulk.
  6. Punch down the dough, and divide in half. Roll each portion into a 22- x 12-inch rectangle. Spread 1/3 cup softened butter evenly on each rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border. Stir together 1/2 cup sugar, cinnamon and mace, and sprinkle evenly over butter on each rectangle.
  7. Roll up each dough rectangle, jelly-roll fashion, starting at 1 long side. Don't forget to put a bean in if you want to. Place one dough roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bring ends of roll together to form an oval ring, moistening and pinching edges together to seal. Repeat with second dough roll.
  8. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts, 20 to 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
  9. Bake at 375° for 14 to 16 minutes or until golden. Slightly cool cakes on pans on wire racks (about 10 minutes). If you want to make the New Orleans version. drizzle a creamy glaze on top and sprinkle with colored sugars to form bands of color across the bread. Cool completely. If you want to insert a bean or a piece of candy, you can do it from the bottom so no one will see where it is inserted. The photo is King cake purchased from Rouses in Houma, LA
Cast your vote for Traditional Kings Cake Recipe
New Orleans Kings Cake Tokens
New Orleans Kings Cake Tokens

What do you discover in your Kings Cake?

Good luck tokens

These tokens are from New Orleans. I have tried several kinds, but I think in the end I like to first bake the cake, and then slip the tokens into the cake after it has cooled. If you are using plastic figures, it is especially important to wait until the cake is cool before pushing them into the cake, otherwise they will melt, or worse yet, let off toxic chemicals inside the cake. You can poke them through the bottom so peekers can't see where they were inserted.

In England people eat "Twelfth Cake," which is a dense British style fruitcake. The customary token in this cake is a bean, which would make you the King or Queen for the night, but other items were sometimes included in the cake. If you find a clove you are the villain, or if you find a twig, you are the fool, and if you find a rag, you are the tart. It might be fun to get creative in what you put into your cake. You could put jelly beans in it instead, or other small candies, or even a gumball or a small mint or even tiny pieces of chocolate.

But I don't have a plastic baby! - It's okay - Amazon does.

Those small babies are not so easy to find. But Amazon has everything. just click on the link and you can have some right away. They even have wild colors for the sugars to sprinkle on top if you are making a New Orleans style cake. You could even color it like a rainbow!

Epiphany procession in Siberia
Epiphany procession in Siberia

Epiphany in the Eastern Churches

Celebrating the Baptism of Christ with water

Epiphany is marked as the celebration of the baptism of Christ for some.

In Greece and places where the Greek church is predominant, the feast is called "Phota," which means "Lights," reminding people that Jesus is called the "Light of the World." Around Greece with its many islands and the constant presence of the sea, the priest will have a "Great Blessing of the Waters," which marks the end of the traditional ban on sailing at that time. It is said that the priest does this to clean the seas of the mischief-prone "kalik ántzaroi", which are goblins that tease the believers through the festive season.

After the blessing of the baptismal water in the church the night before the feast, the next day the priest will process with a cross to the nearest larger body of water, be it the sea, a river, or a swimming pool. The cross is thrown into the water, and usually the men will try to swim out and retrieve it, which is said to bring them good luck. This is not just a custom that happens in Greece, but also in other Orthodox churches. Even in the coldest climates there are people who will dive into water where the ice has been removed in order to retrieve the cross.

In Russia the Orthodox church members believe that on Theophany (Epiphany) water becomes holy and has special powers. Not only do they cut holes through the ice of lakes or rivers in order to bathe in the freezing water, they also bless the water in the churches, which is distributed to the people who keep it to use when they are sick, to bless themselves, family members, and their homes. They also drink it, because some believers think that all water, no matter where it comes from, that is poured or bottled on Epiphany becomes holy water.

Braving the ice on Epiphany in Russia

Epiphany in Russia is hard for me to imagine, but the people I have heard talk about the custom of bathing in icy cold water are enthusiastic. They say it makes them feel as if they truly are cleansed of their sins. This video will give you a real glimpse of this tradition. Please note - the priest goes in too.

Another definition of Epiphany

If someone says. "I had an epiphany," that means they had a major and striking sudden realization. It doesn't have to be about a religious topic. It could be about anything.

What do you think of these three kings day celebrations and traditions? - We want to know! If you go swimming in icy water, you must be "a saint!"

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      We celebrated 3 Kings in the Philippines before but now it is only a few who do. I wish they can see your lens and do it once again.

    • Elyn MacInnis profile imageAUTHOR

      Elyn MacInnis 

      5 years ago from Shanghai, China

      @Gypzeerose: I am so glad - I first discovered Three Kings Day from Dutch and French friends, who celebrate it with gusto. It is a holiday worth celebrating indeed!

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 

      5 years ago

      I think this is an amazing lens - from the lensmasters profile to the recipe, to all the history. Sent out by google plus, facebook liked and pinned on my Christmas board. And blessed.......... I celebrate Three Kings Day with a much heightened sense of awareness from now on.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Three Kings Cakes look wonderful and fun. :)

    • profile image

      Terrie_Schultz 

      6 years ago

      Lovely lens!

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 

      6 years ago

      Enjoyed this article! The painting in the Intro is just beautiful!

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      cool day, just noticed that this holiday is on my calender too, enjoyed the read on it too.

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