12th Night, Epiphany and Theophany: Ancient traditions mark close of Christmas

Persons in era Christmas clothing, some with instruments, some persons in everyday clothing, march down street in happy procession

A Twelfth Night procession in Great Britain. Photo by Stephen Craven

TUESDAY, JANUARY 5: Twelfth Night (or Epiphany Eve).

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6: Epiphany in Western Christianity; Theophany (or Divine Manifestation) in Eastern Christianity.

Did you know? Dates and customs vary widely! These festivals have been evolving for many centuries. Epiphany and Theophany customs in some countries actually mingle Eastern and Western Christian traditions—look to Eastern Europe for examples. Also, some Christians, including many Protestants, marked Epiphany on Sunday January 3 this year—while other Christians, including many Catholics, won’t close out this season until Monday, January 11. The Roman Catholic calendar starts the next Christian season, Ordinary Time, on the Monday after Epiphany—which is January 11 this year. That means two friends in America—one Protestant and one Catholic—might compare notes on their religious traditions and find themselves a week apart this year.

Here’s more about these festivals …

TWELFTH NIGHT

Only a century ago, Christmas celebrations were reaching their peak on the night of January 5. Hard to believe? It’s true—the 12th day of Christmas, known better as Twelfth Night, has long been an occasion for special cakes, “misrule” (lively celebrations) and plenty of merrymaking. In the Christian Church, Twelfth Night is Epiphany Eve, as the faithful prepare for the feast celebrating the visitation of the Magi. In some Catholic countries, children anticipate small gifts and candies to be left on the evening of January 5, as the Magi “pass by” on their way to Bethlehem. Songs such as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “I Saw Three Ships” pay homage to the Magi and, respectively, to their relics being transported to Cologne, aboard three ships.

Did you know? George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night. In past centuries, it was common for weddings to be held during Christmastide (the period between Christmas and Epiphany).

Round cake of bread and with red and green decor on top, with paper crown in middle

A Spanish Rosca de reyes, commonly consumed on Twelfth Night or Epiphany. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In centuries past, the early days of January were filled with plenty of fatty, sugary foods, drinks, parties and gatherings around the table with family and friends. Particularly in medieval and Tudor England, it was custom for a Twelfth Night cake to be served, into which a bean was cooked: the recipient of piece of cake with the bean would rule for the evening. As Twelfth Night ended a winter festival, the Lord of Misrule gained sovereignty. (Wikipedia has details.) For one evening—until midnight—peasants were treated as kings, and kings as peasants. The Lord of Misrule tradition dates back to Celtic and Ancient Roman civilizations.

In Colonial America, the Christmas wreath was left on the door until the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, at which time any edible portions were consumed. In a similar manner, any fruits on Christmas trees were consumed on Twelfth Night. (Interested in the Victorian era’s take on Twelfth Night? Read more at JaneAusten.co.uk.)

EPIPHANY AND THEOPHANY

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6: Christians worldwide rejoice in the manifestation of Jesus, revealed as God the Son, on the Feast of Epiphany (in Greek, Theophany). Literally “striking appearance,” or “vision of God,” Epiphany and Theophany have been central to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars for centuries. Through Advent, the Western Christian Church anticipated the coming of Jesus, and of course Mary and Joseph were the earliest witnesses. But Christian tradition holds that one key moment in this revelation was the arrival of the Magi—representatives of other nations—when the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place.

In a similar way, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, at this time of year, but Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, complete with parades, parties, king cakes and “visiting” Magi. On the morning of Epiphany in Poland, some children dress in traditional clothing, carols are sung and homes are blessed; in Argentina, many children awake to find gifts left by the “passing” Magi.

In Eastern Orthodox Christian communities, observances are far more elaborate. Epiphany is called Theophany and also commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Because all three branches of the Holy Trinity were present at Jesus’ baptism, according to church teaching, this event marks the moment at which Jesus was fully recognized as the Son of God. (Wikipedia has details.)

It remains common for priests to bless water on Jan. 6 and for parishioners to ingest, sprinkle or swim in water. This can become quite a vivid event! Orthodox priests bless both a baptismal font and a “living” body of water, and even in countries with frigid temperatures in the winter months, some brave souls like to dive into the freezing—but blessed—water. According to Greek custom, a priest may throw a crucifix into the “living” water, and any number of swimmers will attempt to find the cross. The lucky swimmer who finds the cross then returns it to the priest, in exchange for a blessing. The largest Epiphany event of this kind in the Western Hemisphere, performed for more than a century, happens annually in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

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