Epiphany - while many know it as the day marking 12 days after Christmas and the time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations, it's actually a holiday with significant meaning. Let's take a look at the origin and traditions of this holiday today.
What is Epiphany?
Epiphany means “appearance or manifestation.” Throughout the world, Christians celebrate it on January 6 - 12 days after Christmas Day. Many countries refer to it as “Three Kings Day.” On this day, Western Christianity recognizes Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles. The Gentiles, represented when The Magi visited the child Jesus and showed how God’s gift of the Good News is for all people. Eastern Christianity observes Jesus’ baptism on this day. His baptism revealed his identity to mankind. In the East or the West, Epiphany celebrates God revealing himself to the world.
The Origin of Epiphany
To gain a clear picture of Epiphany’s origin, we need to take a look at the history of the Church Calendar. In the first century, the earliest Christians set aside one day a week as the Lord’s Day. We observe this day on Sunday. In the second century, they established Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Lent was a period of time set aside for penitence and the training of new Christians. Easter observed Christ’s death and celebrated his resurrection followed by Pentecost, where the church focused on triumph and victory.
In the third century, the early Church leaders established Epiphany. This holiday celebrates and recognizes Christ’s birth, baptism, the adoration of magi, and the first miracle at Cana. It wasn’t until the end of the fourth century that early Christians began observing Christmas and Advent. Christmas became the time to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Advent is the four-week period of time before Christmas. It is used to prepare hearts to receive Jesus.
As we can see, Epiphany originated from the earliest Church leaders and has a spiritual meaning. The Church Year begins at Advent. From then, through Pentecost, Christians concentrate on the life and work of Christ. For the rest of the year—Pentecost to Advent—the church year focuses on the teachings of Christ and the applications to the Christian life. The ultimate purpose of the church calendar ensured that Christians covered the entire breadth and depth of the Gospel in the course of a year. The six-month period from Advent to Pentecost covers all six major events: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.
History and Traditions of Epiphany
Since epiphany means manifestation, early celebrations honored any of the four manifestations of Christ. His birth, the adoration of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism, and the first miracle at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine.
These four manifestations reveal God to mankind. At his birth, the angels bore witness and the shepherds, representing Israel, bowed before Jesus. The visit of the Magi revealed Jesus’ to Gentiles. At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended, and God declared Jesus’ identity. And the first miracle at the Wedding in Cana, revealed Jesus’ divinity over nature. God disclosed himself to humankind through the person of Jesus. He made himself known so we might know him.
Traditions observing Three Kings Day vary around the world and have changed over time. During the Middle Ages, celebrations focused on the Magi’s journey. In 1336 Italy, one would find processions, ceremonies, nativity plays, and carnivals. Some folklore and customs of Epiphany throughout the world include children receiving gifts on this day rather than on Christmas Day. In some Spanish-speaking countries, three kings deliver gifts not Santa Claus. On Twelfth Night, as it is known in some countries, children would leave a shoe and a bit of straw on their doorstep. They would find their shoe filled with gifts and the straw gone.
Some traditions on Epiphany around the world include eating a “Kings Cake” with a trinket baked inside. Whoever finds the trinket, is King or Queen for the day. Who wouldn’t want to be royalty for the day, right? It also points our hearts to our status as royal priesthood as Peter writes in 1 Peter 2. France calls it the Feast of Kings and in Spanish speaking countries, it is called Three Kings Day.
In other culture’s past centuries, Twelfth Day, or January 6, marked the end of the Christmas season with feasts and masquerades. Eastern Orthodox Christians called it “Feast of Lights” to reflect their belief that baptism happens because of spiritual illumination. Today, some people use Epiphany to take down their Christmas decorations and store them away for the next year. The Common Book of Prayer has readings for churches to read to mark the Epiphany season. Many of these readings focus on God revealing himself to his creation.
Do All Christians Celebrate Epiphany/Three Kings Day?
Not all Christians celebrate Three Kings Day, but many do. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox Christians observe Three Kings Day. Whether someone celebrates Epiphany depends on their own personal choice or whether or not their church observes it. Either way, it is a great way to close out the Christmas season and turn our hearts towards keeping Jesus at the center of our lives.
Pointing our Hearts Toward Jesus
One of the many reasons I love this time of year is because of the daily, physical reminders of Jesus everywhere. The twinkly lights on my tree remind me of the angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds. I’m reminded to shine bright in my everyday life each time I walk by my lit tree. The star ornaments point my mind to the star that led the wise men on their two-year journey. This is a gentle reminder that, sometimes, following Christ means I don’t know where I’ll end up, but if I keep following him, I’ll get to where he wants me to be. The tree is in the shape of a triangle which reminds me of the Trinity. The nativity display brings the reality of the stable close to my heart. The music that plays everywhere helps corral my thoughts and fixes them on Jesus. Epiphany, the manifestation of God, is a lovely opportunity to rejoice that Christ has appeared for all men regardless of race or status.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you; All assemble and come to you; your sons and daughters are carried on the arm. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy,” Isaiah 60:1-5.
A Prayer for Epiphany
Thank you for revealing yourself to us. We shout for joy and worship you with gladness. We come before with joyful songs and join with the angels as they say, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men.” We receive your peace and comfort. We ask that as we continue into the new year that we would remember your divinity and revel in your identity. You are a miracle working God, and so we ask you to do a mighty work of internal transformation in our life. Change us to be more like you. Let our words and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing to you. Just as the wise men followed the star, so we commit to following you. Lead and guide us. Comfort and heal us. Let our hearts be set on you as you reveal more and more of yourself to us. We adore you and give you glory.
In your name, Amen
A Time of Revelation
Epiphany is a time of revelation. Jesus revealed himself to the Israelites and the Gentiles as represented by the Wise Men. God doesn’t play favorites but receives all whose hearts long for him. May we open our hearts to receive revelation from God this year. May we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. May we reveal the reason for which we have hope and celebrate the epiphany of the Lord in our lives.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/kevron2001
Jessica Van Roekel is a worship leader, speaker, and writer who writes at www.welcomegrace.com sharing hope-filled inspiration addressing internal hurts in the light of God’s transforming grace. She believes that through Christ our personal histories don’t have to define our present or determine our future. Jessica lives in rural Iowa with her husband and family. You can connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.
This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!
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