History and Customs of Epiphany aka ‘Three Kings Day’

Why is Epiphany observed? What is it? Its significance in tradition and history – where and how it is observed, celebrated and recognized

History and Customs of Epiphany aka ‘Three Kings Day’

Let’s make an attempt to address this interesting tradition in the order of questions that come to mind – the 3 ‘Ws’ and the ‘H’ questions. So, let’s just get on with it!

What is Epiphany and Why is it observed?

A number of explanations are available on the topic of Epiphany and the diverse ways of observing the event in relation to geographic and demographic differences – irrespective of these, it is more or less done for a common reason which is to mark the 12th day after Christmas with a grand feast.

The basic purpose is to give Christians the world over a chance – an occasion – to celebrate their common faith – Christianity!

Epiphany is also known by other common names such as, ‘The Three Kings’ and ‘Theophany’ and ‘El Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos’ – there may be other not-so- common names too.

Noticeably, the name, ‘The Three Kings’ refers to the three wise men who visited the newborn baby Jesus.

The word Epiphany itself has a Greek origin and means manifestation or appearance.

The word Epiphany is said to have originated in the eastern parts of the great Roman Empire where Greek was widely spoken – hence the Greek origin.

A man dressed as one of the Three Kings greets people during the Epiphany parade in Gijon, Spain, on Jan. 5, 2017
A man dressed as one of the Three Kings greets people during the Epiphany parade in Gijon, Spain, on Jan. 5, 2017

In different Christian traditions broadly classified into two categories, the Eastern and Western Churches, the commemoration may differ in the events being observed; however, the essence of the feast and celebration of the religion is what really matters.

For example, the Christians of the West primarily observe Epiphany for the commemoration of the coming of the Magi (the three wise men), with not too much importance to the Baptism of Jesus and the miracle at the Wedding at Cana.

The Eastern Churches, on the other hand, celebrate and have a grand feast in remembrance and honour of the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (A river in the Middle East, mentioned in the Bible, that empties into the Dead Sea, and after which the country Jordan is named.)

When is Epiphany celebrated?

Generally, the Epiphany is supposed to be celebrated on the 6th day of January every year and has a long history of changes. In short, the changes made to the Roman Catholic Calendar in 1969, allows a small margin of flexibility; here is an extract from it:

“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.”

However, the geographical and demographic variations still remain.

How is it celebrated?

From a traditional viewpoint, Epiphany is observed by blessing the home, blessing water, exchanging gifts, performing “Magi plays”, and most importantly FEASTING – the “King Cake” being the main attraction.

As we have already spoken about the demographic and geographical differences, the traditions or ways of celebration vary.

Out of the many examples available here are a few different ways of observing Epiphany in a couple of countries:

Poland:

In Poland Epiphany is referred to as “Trzech Króli” meaning “Three Kings” in English, and is celebrated with much fanfare including huge parades, apparently, welcoming the Magi.

The Polish people carry boxes containing items such as a gold ring, a piece of chalk, incense sticks, and a piece of amber to the church to be blessed. They used the blessed chalk to mark the letters K+M+B above every door in the house for protection against bad omens.

Portugal:

The Portuguese call Epiphany “DiaDos Reis” (Day of the Kings) and celebrate the occasion by baking and feasting on “Bolo Rei” or the King Cake. Plays, parades, and parties for children are also major activities of the celebration.

There many other countries that have their own way of celebrating, enjoying and merrymaking – however, at the expense of being repetitive, Epiphany or whichever alternative name you prefer is about celebrating a common faith – Christianity as a whole.

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