Epiphany (Greek: επιφάνεια, "the appearance; miraculous phenomenon") is a Christian feast intended to celebrate the 'shining forth' or revelation of God to mankind in human form, in the person of Jesus. The observance had its origins in the eastern Christian churches, and included the birth of Jesus; the visit of the three Magi, or Wise Men (traditionally named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) who arrived in Bethlehem; and all of Jesus' childhood events, up to his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. The feast was initially based on, and viewed as a fulfillment of, the Jewish Feast of Lights. This was fixed on January 6.
The first reference to Epiphany in the Eastern Church is a slighting remark by Clement of Alexandria in Stromateis, I, xxi, 45:
"There are those, too, who over-curiously assign to the Birth of Our Saviour not only its year but its day…"
Origen's list of festivals (in Contra Celsum, VIII, xxii) omits any reference to Epiphany. The first reference to an ecclesiastical feast of the Epiphany, in Ammianus Marcellinus (XXI:ii), is in 361.
Thus in the Western church, the feast of Christmas was established before that of Epiphany. Over time the West decided to celebrate Christmas on December 25. The East continued to treat January 6 as the day marking Jesus's birth. This has given rise in the west to the notion of a twelve-day festival, starting on December 25, and ending on January 6, called the twelve days of Christmas, although some Christian cultures — especially those of Latin America — extend it to forty days, ending on Candlemas, or February 2 (known as Candelaria in Spanish).
Prior to 1970, the Roman Catholic Church (and prior to 1976, the Anglican churches) reckoned Epiphany as an eight-day feast, beginning on January 6 and continuing through the Octave of Epiphany, or January 13.
Many traditionalist Catholics continue to use this calendar, celebrating the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday within the octave. On the Feast of the Epiphany itself, the priest, wearing white vestments, will bless the 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.
More recently, most Roman Catholics in the United States mark Epiphany on the Sunday after the first Saturday in January (before this the Sunday between January 1 and January 6, in years when there was one, was designated the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus), and most Catholics and Anglicans (along with many other Protestants) now formally end the Christmas season on the Sunday immediately following January 6, or, for American Catholics, the ensuing Monday in years when the Epiphany falls on January 7 or January 8. In either case, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is observed on the latter day, after which the first installment of Ordinary Time begins. (But note that some Churches, such as the Anglican Catholic Church, and some groups of Roman Catholics, still use the pre-1970 calendar; for these bodies, Christmas still has twelve days and ends on January 5, and Epiphany is still celebrated on January 6 with an 8-day octave.) The Baptism of Christ is one of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary.
Today in Eastern Orthodox churches, the emphasis at this feast is on the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and second person of the Holy Trinity at the time of his baptism. It is also celebrated because, according to tradition, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist marked the only occasion when all three persons of the Holy Trinity manifested their physical presence 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 overflying the scene. Usually called the Feast of the Theophany (Greek: Θεοφάνεια), it is one of the great feasts of the liturgical year; "theophany" is Greek for "God shining forth".
Orthodox Churches also perform a "Blessing of the Waters" on Epiphany Day: following Divine Liturgy, clerics proceed to the nearest body of water, be it a beach, a harbor, a quay, a river, a lake, a swimming pool, a water depot etc, and after a short ceremony they cast a cross in the water. If swimming is feasible on the spot, any number of volunteers may brave the cold winter waters and try to recover the cross. The person who gets the cross first swims back and returns it to the cleric, who then delivers a special blessing to the swimmer and their family and household. Certain such ceremonies have achieved particular prominence, such as the one held annually at Tarpon Springs, Florida.
The Irish call this day Little Christmas or Women's Christmas (Irish: Nollaig na mBan). In Rome, "Epiphania" was transformed into Befana, the great fair held at that season, when sigillaria of terracotta or baked pastry were sold (Macrobius I, x, xxiv; II, xlix).
In Spain, Mexico, Cuba and some Latin American countries Epiphany day is called El Día de los Reyes (The Day of the Three Kings). The day when the Three Kings or Three Magi of the Holy Bible arrived to worship and bring gifts to the baby Jesus after following a star in the heavens. This day is sometimes known as the Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (The day of the Three Magi) or La Pascua de los Negros (Holy Day of the Blackmen) in Chile, although the latter is hardly said. In Spanish tradition, on the day of January 6th, the Kings: Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar, representing Europe, Arabia, and Africa, arrived on horse, camel and elephant, bringing respectively gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
In Mexico, it is traditional for children to leave their shoes out on the evening of January 6, sometimes filling them with hay for the camels, so that the Kings will be generous with their gifts. In Puerto Rico, it is also a tradition for children to fill a box with grass or hay and put it underneath their bed, for the same reasons. This is analogous to children leaving mince pies or cookies and milk out for Santa Claus. In some parts of northern Mexico the shoes are left under the Christmas tree with a letter to the Three Kings. In the afternoon or evening of the same day the ritual of the Rosca de Reyes is shared with family and friends. The Rosca is a type of sweet-bread made with orange blossom, water, and butter; decorated with candied fruit. Baked inside is a small doll representing the baby Jesus. The person who finds the doll in his piece of rosca must throw a party on February 2nd, Calendaria Day, offering tamales and atole (a hot sweet drink thickened with corn flour) to the guests.
In France, on Epiphany people eat the gâteau des Rois in Provence or the galette des Rois in the northern half of France and Belgium. This is a kind of king cake, with a trinket or a bean hidden inside. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes king for a day.
The Twelve Holy Days is the holy period, from December 26th to January 6th, in the esoteric and astrological interpretation of the Christmas season.
The night between the 24th and 25th of December is considered to be the most "holy night", when the sun (the "Light of the World") commences its journey from the south to the north. On the night when he commences his northward journey the zodiacal sign virgo, the celestial virgin (the "Queen of Heaven"), stands upon the eastern horizon at midnight (thus he is "born of a virgin" without other intermediary, hence, "immaculately conceived.") .
On December 25th the Christ enters the heart of earth and the planet is swept by powerful solstitial radiations, becoming enveloped by the light of the archangelic Christ and therefore Christmas is considered the most "holy day" of the year. From December 26th to January 6th the twelve zodiacal hierarquies work upon the earth and its life forms, along with the Christ light which continues throughout the twelve holy days. The night of January 6th is regarded as the Twelfth Night, the time when the "Rite of Baptism" was performed in early Christianity. This period of twelve-day interval, between Christmas and Twelfth Night, is regarded as the spiritual heart of the year to follow and is termed the year's "Holy of Holies" .
Read more Gnostic Homily for EpiphanyIn Matthew 2: 9-11, the ageless story describes a Star in the East guiding three wisemen, or magi, to the place of the divine birth of Christ. Legends of the Celtic peoples tell that their druids and seers, through study of astrology and signs seen in the sacred fires, also foretold this divine birth.
According to medieval legends, the three wisemen were named Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar. Each of them came from a different culture: Melchior was Asian, Balthazar was Persian and Gaspar was Ethopian, thus representing the three races known to the old world. These three priest-kings and wisemen brought royal gifts to the divine infant: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Melchior brought a golden cup, which, according to legend, was preserved by the Blessed Virgin Mary and was the same cup used in the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Balthazar brought a gold box of frankincense. Gaspar brought a curiously chased flask of myrrh, a royal embalming oil.
The gift of gold symbolizes the kingship of Christ, which represents our own true royal Selfhood and our giving of love and service as directed and commanded by that Self. The gift of frankincense symbolizes the Godhead of Christ and our own gifts of honor and reverence to our indwelling Divinity. The gift of myrrh is a prophecy of the death and burial of the earthly body of Christ, which represents our understanding and empathy for the suffering of humanity.