History of Epiphany: the 12th Day of Christmas?

HISTORY OF EPIPHANY

January 6 is known in the Christian calendar as Epiphany. It signifies the event of the Magi, or Wise Men visiting the baby Jesus, and is known in certain Latin cultures as Three Kings Day. In the Eastern (Orthodox and Oriental) churches it is known as the Feast of Theophany (God Manifest), commemorating Jesus’ baptism — recounted in all four Gospels of the New Testament — with the attendant appearance of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the voice of God the Father. This date is also tied to Jesus’ miracle of changing the water to wine at the Wedding of Cana in the Gospel of John Chapter 2.

So, the 12 Days of Christmas don’t end at Christmas, Advent does. Instead, the 12 days start with Christmas, and end with Epiphany, these 12 days sometimes called Christmastide. The subsequent “season” of Epiphany lasts from January 6 through the day before Lent. Some Latin American and European cultures extend this season to February 2, or Candlemas.

Epiphany is a Greek word that means manifestation, appearance, or showing forth. Historically, Epiphany began in the eastern Church as the celebration of the nativity of Jesus Christ. As the celebration of Christmas spread eastward, Epiphany changed to its present meaning. It is ironic that in years when Chanukah overlaps Christmastide, that Epiphany is so close to Chanukah. We recall that the villain in the Chanukah history was Antiochus Epiphanes IV, or “Antiochus, God made manifest.”

In the Western churches (Protestants, Catholics, and Anglicans) Epiphany commemorates the “adoration” of the Christ Child by the Magi as they presented their gifts, thereby “revealing” Jesus to the world as Lord and King. The preceding evening is sometimes called the “Twelfth Night” being the 12th Day of Christmas. There remains some confusion on when Twelfth Night actually occurs. The older tradition, based on the custom during the Middle Ages that the beginning of a day started the evening before places Twelfth Night the eve of January 5. Later traditions, where the day starts at midnight have Twelfth Night on January 6 with a party and the exchange of gifts. The Russian church’s Christmas, or “Feast of the Nativity,” is celebrated on January 7. Those Eastern Orthodox churches which hold to the older Julian Calendar rather than the Gregorian Calendar observe the Julian January 6 on January 19 in our current calendar.

January 5 is Paramony, the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany, paralleling the December 24 Feast of Christmas Eve.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com
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7 comments… add one

  • Here is the chief hymn (troparion) of Theophany:

    When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan
    the worship of the Trinity was made manifest!
    For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee,
    calling Thee his Beloved Son.
    And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
    confirmed the truthfulness of his Word.
    O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself
    and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee

    Reply
    • John, thanks. You never cease to amaze me!

      Reply
  • Hi,

    In France we celebrate the Epiphany on the first Sunday of January by sharing a cake (either a round brioche or a flat almond pastry) which contains a little symbol. Who gets the “feve” becomes king for the day and wears a golden paper crown.

    In Italy they have a custom with a witch giving candies or pieces of coal to the children. Candy for the nice kids, coal for the naughty.

    Take care,
    -karim

    Reply
  • Thank you for all this information, I learned now. On the 6th of January we celebrate Three Kings Day. After dinner we eat yoghurt or something like that. The one who finds the bean is King and may tell what will be done that evening.
    That Italian custom looks like the celebration of Saint Nicholas in Holland, who has his birthday at December 6th. The evening befor is a giving-party. In the 3 weeks befor children may put one shoe near the chimney. Nice kids will find a present, naughty ones a bit of salt. The persons who surround St. Nicholas (with long white beard and red overcoat) are painted black.
    Did know that on that January 6th the Advent-period stops. But it logic to me. After the 6th we clear our Xmas-tree and the house is ‘normal’ again. That was always that way, normal to me. But now it looks like that other ‘purple’ period, about the same length.

    Reply
  • Agree about Epiphany, but in England at least 12th Night is ‘Epiphany Eve’ (ie the night before Epiphany in the same way that Christmas Eve is the night before Christmas Day.)

    It’s not like ‘Tuesday night’.

    Reply
    • Mark,

      Thanks for the note. Confusion reigns on this topic. It’s actually both ways: the older tradition — as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary and practiced in England — has 12th Night on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. The later tradition — where days start at midnight — has it the evening of January 5.

      Here in America, we’ve mostly forgotten both traditions and few celebrate it. Commercial marketers erroneously put the 12 Days of Christmas before December 25, and the season ends on the 25th followed by “after Christmas sales.” New Years Day closes the holiday season here with people returning to work the next day.

      I’ve updated my article to clear up the ambiguity.

      -Bill

      Reply
  • Eric Metaxis did a radio spot on the relationship between Epiphany and the novel Ben Hur. Find it here: http://www.breakpoint.org/bpcommentaries/entry/13/24197?spMailingID=7700952&spUserID=OTQ0MjIxMzc5S0&spJobID=112285985&spReportId=MTEyMjg1OTg1S0

    Reply

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