Epiphany (/ɪˈpɪfəni/ ə-PIFF-ə-nee), also Theophany, or Three Kings’ Day, is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally (but not solely) the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Moreover, the feast of the Epiphany, in some Western Christian denominations, also initiates the liturgical season of Epiphanytide. Eastern Christians, on the other hand, commemorate the baptism of Jesus on both sides of the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. Qasr el Yahud in the West Bank, and Al-Maghtas in Jordan on the east bank, Al-Maghtas is considered to be the original site of the baptism of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist.
The traditional date for the feast is January 6. However, since 1970, the celebration is held in some countries on the Sunday after January 1. Eastern Churches following the Julian calendar observe the feast on what for most countries is January 19 because of the 13-day difference today between that calendar and the generally used Gregorian calendar. In many Western Christian Churches, the eve of the feast is celebrated as Twelfth Night. The Monday after Epiphany is known as Plough Monday.
Popular Epiphany customs include Epiphany singing, chalking the door, having one’s house blessed, consuming Three Kings Cake, winter swimming, as well as attending church services. It is customary for Christians in many localities to remove their Christmas decorations on Epiphany Eve (Twelfth Night),although those in other Christian countries historically remove them on Candlemas, the conclusion of Epiphanytide. According to the first tradition, those who fail to remember to remove their Christmas decorations on Epiphany Eve must leave them untouched until Candlemas, the second opportunity to remove them; failure to observe this custom is considered inauspicious.
Epiphany may have originated in the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire as a feast to honor the baptism of Jesus. Around 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote that, “But the followers of Basilides celebrate the day of His Baptism too, spending the previous night in readings. And they say that it was the 15th of the month Tybi of the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar. And some say that it was observed the 11th of the same month.” The Egyptian dates given correspond to January 6 and 10. The Basilides were a Gnostic sect.
The reference to “readings” suggests that the Basilides were reading the Gospels. In ancient gospel manuscripts, the text is arranged to indicate passages for liturgical readings. If a congregation began reading Mark at the beginning of the year, it might arrive at the story of the Baptism on January 6, thus explaining the date of the feast. If Christians read Mark in the same format the Basilides did, the two groups could have arrived at the January 6 date independently.
The earliest reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast was in A.D. 361, by Ammianus Marcellinus. The holiday is listed twice, which suggests a double feast of baptism and birth. The Nativity was assigned to the same date as the birth because Luke 3:23 was misread to mean that Jesus was exactly 30 when he was baptized.
Epiphanius of Salamis says that January 6 is Christ’s “Birthday; that is, His Epiphany” (hemera genethlion toutestin epiphanion). He also asserts that the Miracle at Cana occurred on the same calendar day. Epiphanius assigns the Baptism to November 6.
The scope to Epiphany expanded to include the commemoration of his birth; the visit of the magi, all of Jesus’ childhood events, up to and including the Baptism by John the Baptist; and even the miracle at the wedding at Cana in Galilee.
In the Latin-speaking West, the holiday emphasized the visit of the magi. The magi represented the non-Jewish peoples of the world, so this was considered a “revelation to the gentiles.” In this event, Christian writers also inferred a revelation to the Children of Israel. John Chrysostom identified the significance of the meeting between the magi and Herod’s court: “The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way the birth of Jesus would be made known to all.”
In 385, the pilgrim Egeria (also known as Silvia) described a celebration in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which she called “Epiphany” that commemorated the Nativity. Even at this early date, there was an octave associated with the feast.
In a sermon delivered on 25 December 380, St. Gregory of Nazianzus referred to the day as “the Theophany” (ta theophania), saying expressly that it is a day commemorating “the holy nativity of Christ” and told his listeners that they would soon be celebrating the baptism of Christ. Then, on January 6 and 7, he preached two more sermons,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. At this time, celebration of the two events was beginning to be observed on separate occasions, at least in Cappadocia.
Saint John Cassian says that even in his time (beginning of the 5th century), Egyptian monasteries celebrated the Nativity and the Baptism together on January 6. The Armenian Apostolic Church continues to celebrate January 6 as the only commemoration of the Nativity.
Carols and hymns
Two very familiar Christmas carols associated with Epiphany are “As with gladness, men of old”, written by William Chatterton Dix in 1860 as a response to the many legends which had grown up surrounding the Magi, and “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, written by the Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jr., then an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church, instrumental in organizing an elaborate holiday pageant (which featured this hymn) for the students of the General Theological Seminary in New York City in 1857 while serving as the seminary’s music director. Another popular hymn, less known culturally as a carol, is “Songs of thankfulness and praise”, with words written by Christopher Wordsworth and commonly sung to the tune “St. Edmund” by Charles Steggall. A carol used as an anthem for Epiphany is “The Three Kings”.
Date of celebration
Until 1955, when Pope Pius XII abolished all but three liturgical octaves, the Latin Church celebrated Epiphany as an eight-day feast, known as the Octave of Epiphany, beginning on January 6 and ending on January 13. The Sunday within that octave was since 1893 the feast of the Holy Family, and Christmastide was reckoned as the twelve days ending on January 5, followed by the January 6–13 octave. The 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar made the date to some extent variable, stating: “The Epiphany of the Lord is celebrated on 6 January, unless, where it is not observed as a holy day of obligation, it has been assigned to the Sunday occurring between 2 and 8 January.” It also made the Feast of the Epiphany part of Christmas Time, which it defined as extending from the First Vespers of Christmas (the evening of December 24) up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday after January 6).
Prior to 1976, Anglican churches also observed an eight-day feast, beginning on January 6. Today, The Epiphany of our Lord, classified as a Principal Feast, is observed in some Anglican provinces on January 6 exclusively (e.g., the Anglican Church of Canada) but in the Church of England the celebration is “on 6 January or transferred to the Sunday falling between 2 and 8 January”.
Lutheran, United Methodist and United Church of Christ congregations, along with those of other denominations, may celebrate Epiphany on January 6, on the following Sunday within the Epiphany week (octave), or at another time (Epiphany Eve January 5, the nearest Sunday, etc.) as local custom dictates.
Eastern churches celebrate Epiphany (Theophany) on January 6. Some, as in Greece, employ the modern Revised Julian calendar, which until the year 2800 coincides with the Gregorian calendar, the one in use for civil purposes in most countries. Other Eastern churches, as in Russia, hold to the older Julian calendar for reckoning church dates. In these old-calendar churches Epiphany falls at present on Gregorian January 19 – which is January 6 in the Julian calendar.
Epiphany is celebrated with a wide array of customs around the world. In some cultures, the greenery and nativity scenes put up at Christmas are taken down at Epiphany. In other cultures these remain up until Candlemas on February 2. In countries historically shaped by Western Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism) these customs often involve gift giving, “king cakes” and a celebratory close to the Christmas season. In traditionally Orthodox nations, water, baptismal rites and house blessings are typically central to these celebrations.