History of Epiphany and Twelfth Night: Ending the 12 Days of Christmas?


Twelfth Night is on January 5, the eve of Epiphany, which occurs in the Christian calendar on January 6. Epiphany signifies the event of the Magi, or Wise Men, visiting the baby Jesus and is known in some Latin cultures as Three Kings Day.

Or, as my friend Tim LeCroy likes to say,

“Epiphany is the…

Manger Zone


In the Eastern (Orthodox and Oriental) churches, it is known as the Feast of Theophany (God Manifest), commemorating Jesus’ baptism with the attendant appearance of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the voice of God the Father. This story is recounted in all four Gospels of the New Testament. This date is also tied to Jesus’ miracle of changing the water to wine at the Wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John, Chapter 2.


Christmas vs. Advent

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 are sometimes called Christmastide.


Epiphany clip


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 In the East

“Epiphany” is a Greek word that means manifestation, appearance, revelation, or showing forth. Historically, Epiphany began in the Eastern Church as the celebration of the nativity of Jesus Christ during the 1st century. In the 2nd century, St. Clement of Alexandria discussed this celebration and the night vigil before the Feast. Additionally, 2nd-century St. Hippolytus of Rome and 3rd-century St. Gregory the Miracle-Worker discussed this observance.

As the celebration of Christmas spread eastward, Epiphany changed to its present meaning. It is sometimes called the Feast of Lights. It is ironic that in years when Chanukah overlaps Christmastide, that Epiphany is so close to Chanukah, the Jewish “Feast of Lights.” We recall that the villain in the Chanukah narrative was Antiochus Epiphanes IV, or “Antiochus, God made manifest.”


Epiphany In the West

In the Western churches (Protestants, Catholics, and Anglicans), Epiphany commemorates the “adoration” of the Christ Child by the Magi as they presented their gifts. In this way, they were “revealing” Jesus to the world as Lord and King.


Twelfth Night


Scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’), by Daniel Maclise. Image: Tate


The preceding evening is sometimes called the “Twelfth Night,” being the 12th Day of Christmas. William Shakespeare‘s play by the same name, sometimes called Twelfth Night or What You Will, includes mistaken identities, unrequited love, music, and merriment appropriate to the occasion of Twelfth Night celebrations.

It is likely the play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I for performance at the end of the embassy of the Italian diplomat, Duke of Orsino (the name of the play’s character who is Duke of Illyria) on January 6, 1601, at her Whitehall Palace.


When Is Twelfth Night?

There remains some confusion on which date Twelfth Night occurs. The older tradition, based on the custom during the Middle Ages, was that the beginning of a day started the evening before. This places Twelfth Night on the eve of January 5 or the “Eve of the Feast of Epiphany.” Later traditions, where the day begins 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. Many Eastern Orthodox churches follow the older Julian Calendar rather than the more widely accepted Gregorian Calendar. In the Julian Calendar, December 25 corresponds to approximately January 7 in the Gregorian Calendar.

January 5 is Paramony, also known as the Forefeast of Theophany, the “Eve of the Feast of Epiphany,” paralleling the December 24 Feast of Christmas Eve.


By the way, you may now take down your Christmas decorations.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian


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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. John Simmons on January 6, 2010 at 12:04 am

    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

    • Bill Petro on January 6, 2010 at 9:53 am

      John, thanks. You never cease to amaze me!

  2. frenchy on January 29, 2010 at 11:02 pm


    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,

  3. Riet on February 13, 2012 at 3:20 am

    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.

  4. Mark Harrison on January 5, 2013 at 9:42 am

    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’.

    • Bill Petro on January 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm


      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.


  5. Bill Petro on January 6, 2014 at 11:31 am

    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

  6. Simon Nazareth on January 2, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    I really enjoyed your article and it threw light on my understanding. Thanks so much.

  7. eBook Christian on December 26, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    Thank you for this interesting information. God bless.