by Peter Klapes
Derived from the Greek ἐπιφάνεια, meaning “manifestation” or “revelation,” Epiphany is celebrated in the Catholic and Orthodox churches twelve days after Christmas on January 6 (and on January 19 for Old-Calendarist Orthodox Christians, who celebrate Christmas on January 7).
In the Catholic Church—and specifically in Latin America, where the holiday is known as Dia de los Reyes Magos, or “Three Kings Day”—Epiphany celebrates the day when the Wise Men visited Jesus. In the Orthodox Church, the day celebrates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, at the age of thirty, when he began to teach the word of God.
The earliest record of the celebration of the Epiphany dates back to the Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus’s reference in A.D. 361. Saint Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, Cyprus in the late 300s, wrote that January 6 is the Birthday, and the Epiphany of Jesus. Saint Epiphanius also writes that the Wedding at Cana, the first miracle attributed to Jesus, occurred on January 6.
Known as the Twelve Days of Christmas, or Christmastide, many observe a twelve-day festival from December 25 to January 6. However, some traditions in Europe and Latin America extend it to forty days, ending on Candlemas on February 2, which celebrates the ritual of purification of Mary forty days after childbirth (and is, additionally, marked as the customary time for the taking down of Christmas decorations).
As one of the two times that all three Trinitarian persons manifested themselves simultaneously (God the Father speaking through the clouds, the Son being baptized, and the Holy Spirit as a dove descending from heaven), the holiday is considered one of the Great Feasts in the Eastern Orthodox Church, behind Easter and Pentecost. The Orthodox Churches also perform the Great Blessing of Waters on the Epiphany. In many Orthodox traditions, a cross is cast into a body of water by the Clergy and is then searched for by the faithful. “Holy water” or “Theophany water” is then distributed to the faithful, who use it to bless themselves and to drink.
In much of Latin America, Epiphany is a day of gift-giving. In fact, the three wise men (Los tres Reyes Magos), and not Santa Claus, bring gifts to the children. In Mexico, a traditional cake, the “Three Kings Cake” (Rosca de Reyes) is baked, inside of which a figure of the baby Jesus is placed. Whoever receives the piece with the figure is the “Godparent” of Jesus for the year.
In the United States, Epiphany has gained a more festive essence. In Louisiana, Epiphany marks the beginning of Carnival season, with the interval between Epiphany and Mardi Gras known as “King Cake Season,” named for the glazed cinnamon cakes served during this time. And in Colorado, the Great Fruitcake Toss is celebrated on January 6 when a competition for the farthest throw of a Fruitcake marks the end of the Christmas season.