Today is Epiphany. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally (but not solely) the visit of the Magi to the Christ child in Bethlehem. Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. These differences are reflected in the ways in which the feast is celebrated in East and West, liturgically and secularly. In some traditions Epiphany represents the start of the Carnival season (sometimes called the Epiphany season) as an extension of Christmas, lasting until Ash Wednesday
Although the Magi are often referred to as “kings,” as in the carol “We Three Kings”, a better translation of the original Greek, magoi, is magician. In this case, given that they were following a star to Bethlehem it may be better to think of them astrologers. The story of their journey (Matthew 2:1-12 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%202&version=ESV ) makes no mention of their number. The assumption that there were three of them stems from the fact that they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh (assigning one gift to each). But there could have been 2 or 10 of them bearing the gifts jointly. They are usually given the names Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, with increasingly elaborate tales told about their lives. Of course, none of this is Biblical.
On the Feast of the Epiphany in some parts of central Europe the priest, wearing white vestments, blesses Epiphany water, frankincense, gold, and chalk. The chalk is used to write the initials of the three magi over the doors of churches and homes. The letters stand for the initials of the Magi, and also the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates as “may Christ bless the house”.
Today in Eastern Orthodox churches, the emphasis of this feast is on the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Second Person of the Trinity at the time of his baptism. It is also celebrated because, according to tradition, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist marked one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity manifested themselves 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 (the other occasion was the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor). Thus the holy day is considered to be a Trinitarian feast.
Epiphany is celebrated with a wide array of customs around the world. There are way too many traditional customs for me to recount here, so I’ll mention a few.
In much of Latin America (including Argentina), the day is called “Día de los Reyes” (The Day of Kings) or some variant, commemorating the arrival of the Magi to confirm Jesus as son of God. The night of January 5 into the morning of January 6 is known as “Noche de Reyes” (The Night of Kings) and children leave their shoes by the door, along with grass and water for the camels. In the morning of January 6, they get a present, usually sweet things filling their shoes. In times past, Día de los Reyes was the day for presents and not Christmas Day. My sisters and I used to do this as children in Buenos Aires, and so I did it when I lived there even though I am an adult. Even now gift giving is not a major element of Christmas in Argentina. But the tradition of Santa at Christmas in Latin American countries in general has slowly become more common. On January 6, a version of “Rosca de Reyes” (a ring-shaped Epiphany cake) is eaten. These are more commonly bought at bakeries rather than made at home.
The Dutch and Flemish call this day Driekoningen, while German speakers call it Dreikönigstag (Three Kings’ Day). In the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and neighboring Germany, children in groups of three (symbolizing the three kings) proceed in costume from house to house while singing songs typical for the occasion, and receiving a coin or some sweets at each door. They may each carry a paper lantern symbolizing the star. In some places, especially Holland, these troops gather for competitions and present their skits/songs for an audience. As in Belgium, Koningentaart (Kings’ tart), puff pastry with almond filling, is prepared with a black bean hidden inside. Whoever finds the bean in his or her piece is king or queen for the day. A more typically Dutch version is Koningenbrood, or Kings’ bread. Another Low Countries tradition on Epiphany is to open up doors and windows to let good luck in for the coming year.
In England Epiphany, where it is still celebrated, has adopted the customs once traditional for Twelfth Night (see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/twelfth-night/ ) The Twelfth Cake has migrated, for example. Unique to English tradition is that other items were sometimes included in the cake besides the bean and pea. Whoever found the clove was the villain, the twig, the fool, and the rag, the tart. Anything spicy or hot, like ginger snaps and spiced ale, was considered proper Twelfth Night fare, recalling the costly spices brought by the Wise Men. Another English Epiphany dessert was the jam tart, but made into a six-point star for the occasion to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and thus called Epiphany tart. The discerning English cook sometimes tried to use thirteen different colored jams on the tart on this day for luck, creating a dessert with the appearance of stained glass.
In France people share one of two types of king cake. In the northern half of France and Belgium the cake is called a galette des Rois, and is a round, flat, and golden cake made with flake pastry and often filled with frangipane, fruit, or chocolate.
In the south, in Provence, and in the south-west, a crown-shaped cake or brioche filled with fruit called a gâteau des Rois is eaten. Both types of cake contain a charm, usually a porcelain or plastic figurine, called a fève (bean in French). The cake is cut by the youngest (and therefore most innocent) person at the table to assure that the recipient of the bean is random. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes “king” or “queen” and wears a paper crown provided with the cake. This person has a choice between offering a beverage to everyone around the table (usually a sparkling wine or champagne), or volunteering to host the next king cake at their home. Originally this custom was performed every Sunday until Lent.
In parts of southern India, Epiphany is called the Three Kings Festival and is celebrated in front of the local church like a fair. Families come together and cook sweet rice porridge called Pongal. This day marks the close of the Advent and Christmas season and people remove the cribs and nativity sets at home. In Goa Epiphany may be locally known by its Portuguese name Festa dos Reis. Celebrations include a widely Panjim. Other popular Epiphany processions are held in Chandor. Here three young boys in regal robes and splendid crowns descend the nearby hill of Our Lady of Mercy on horseback towards the main church where a three-hour festival Mass is celebrated. The route before them is decorated with streamers, palm leaves and balloons with the smallest children present lining the way, shouting greetings to the Kings. The Kings are traditionally chosen, one each, from Chandor’s three hamlets of Kott, Cavorim and Gurdolim, whose residents helped build the Chandor church in 1645.
In the past the kings were chosen only from among high-caste families, but since 1946 the celebration has been open to all. Participation is still expensive as it involves getting a horse, costumes, and providing a lavish buffet to the community afterwards, in all totaling some 100,000 rupees (about US$2,250) per king. This is undertaken gladly since having son serve as a king is considered a great honor and a blessing on the family.
The Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala State, Epiphany is known by its Syriac name Denha. Saint Thomas Christians, like other Eastern Christians, celebrate Denha as a great feast to commemorate the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. The liturgical season Denhakalam (“Weeks of Epiphany”) commemorates the second revelation at the Baptism and the subsequent public life of Jesus. Denha is celebrated on January 6 by the Syro-Malabar Church, the largest Church of the Thomas Christians, in two ways – Pindiperunnal (“Plantain trunk feast”) and Rakkuliperunal (“Feast with a night bath”).
The Irish call Epiphany the Feast of the Epiphany or traditionally Little Christmas or “Women’s Christmas” (Irish: Nollaig na mBan). On the feast of the Three Kings, women traditionally rested and celebrated for themselves after the cooking and work of the Christmas holidays. The custom was for women to gather on this day for a special meal, but on the occasion of Epiphany accompanied by wine, to honor the Miracle at the Wedding at Cana. Today, women may dine at a restaurant or gather in a pub in the evening. They may also receive gifts from children, grandchildren or other family members on this day. Other Epiphany customs, which symbolize the end of the Christmas season, are popular in Ireland, such as the burning the sprigs of Christmas holly in the fireplace which have been used as decorations during the past twelve days.
These are king cakes of the type locally called “French style” on display at the chain bakery/restaurant “La Madeline” branch in Carrollton, New Orleans. They come with cardboard “crowns” to be worn by whoever gets the slice with the token and becomes monarch of the event.
In Louisiana, Epiphany is the beginning of the Carnival season, during which it is customary to bake King Cakes, similar to the Rosca mentioned above. It is round in shape, filled with cinnamon, glazed white, and coated in traditional carnival color sanding sugar. The person 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”, and many may be consumed during this period. The Carnival season begins on King’s Day (Epiphany), and there are many traditions associated with that day in Louisiana and along the Catholic coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. King cakes are first sold then, Carnival krewes begin having their balls on that date, and the first New Orleans krewe parades in street cars that night.
Tarpon Springs, Florida is known for elaborate religious ceremonies related to the Greek Orthodox Church, the most notable being the Epiphany celebration. The Metropolitan of Atlanta usually presides over the blessings, sometimes joined by the Archbishop of America. The blessings conclude with the ceremonial throwing of a wooden cross into the city’s Spring Bayou, and boys ages 16 to 18 diving in to retrieve it. Whoever recovers the cross is said to be blessed for a full year. Following the blessings, the celebration moves to the Sponge Docks where food and music are made part of the festivities. Tarpon Springs has given itself the nickname Epiphany City.The celebration attracts Greek Americans from across the country, and the city’s population is known to triple in size for that day.
In Manitou Springs, Colorado, Epiphany is marked by the Great Fruitcake Toss. Fruitcakes are thrown, participants dress as kings, fools, etc., and competitions are held for the farthest throw, the most creative projectile device, etc. As with customs in other countries, the fruitcake toss is a sort of festive symbolic leave-taking of the Christmas holidays until next year, but with humorous twist, since fruitcake (although the traditional Christmas bread of America, England and other English speaking nations) is considered in the United States with a certain degree of derision, and is the source of many jokes. I do understand why, however. U.S. fruitcake is vile. Not unlike U.S. beer, also vile –pallid and tasteless.. No one in the U.S. who has tasted my (English) fruitcake objects. Don’t get me started.
I gave a recipe for Twelfth cake yesterday which can be used for an Epiphany cake too. In most countries I know of people buy them from bakers. So here’s a little gallery.