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Feast of Epiphany

Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian feasts. It was celebrated since the end of the second century, before the Christmas holiday was established. In most countries the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on the 6th January. It also has the titles of Twelfth Night, Dia de los Reyes Magos, Le Jour des Rois, Three Kings Day, Dreikönigistag, Ph?ta, Loppiainen, O Dia dos Reis, Bogoyavlenie, Little Christmas or “Women’s Christmas, Trijkungu diena, It-Tre Re, Trzech Kroli, Boboteaza, Ystwyll, so many titles, and there will be even more, and so many ways of celebrating this feast day.

In the Western church Epiphany is the day when the Three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, visited the baby Jesus and brought their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. They followed the new, bright star that had appeared and this led them to the manger where Jesus had been born. In the Eastern, Orthodox, church this is the day that is set aside to observe the birth of Jesus. It is also the twelfth day of Christmas and is the day when the Christmas tree and decorations are taken down and put away for another year. Children can remove the last of the sweets and goodies that have adorned the tree.

The Three Wise Men

The Magi are referred to as being the Three Wise Men, indeed it is not known how many there actually were, but there are references to the Three gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. They are also depicted as being Asian, African and European and therefore not Jewish as was Jesus. This infers that this is the first time that Jesus is presented to the many races of the world, and that his message was to be to all peoples, this had been foretold by the prophets and fulfilled God’s promise.

Epiphany is celebrated by both the Eastern and Western Churches, but a major difference between them is precisely which events the feast commemorates. For Western Christians, the feast primarily commemorates the coming of the Magi, with only a minor reference to the baptism of Jesus and the miracle at the Wedding at Cana. Eastern churches celebrate the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan. In both traditions, the essence of the feast is the same: the manifestation of Christ to the world (whether as an infant or in the Jordan), and the Mystery of the Incarnation. The miracle at the Wedding at Cana is also celebrated during Epiphany as a first manifestation of Christ’s public life.

Epiphany around the world

In the many countries around the world, the Feast of Epiphany is celebrated in varying degrees. On the Eve of the Epiphany, children in many of the predominately catholic countries such as Spain, Argentina, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Portugal and Latin America will leave their shoes outside filled with straw for the donkeys and horses belonging to the Magi, the next morning they hope that they will be filled with chocolates, sweets and small gifts. Other countries celebrate the day with processions and singing in the streets. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany children will go around the streets in groups of three to represent the three kings, they will also have a fourth child with them carrying a lantern or a star, for their singing they receive treats or coins. It is also a tradition in many places to place, in chalk, the year and the letters C M B across the top post of the main door to the house, so for 2012 for example it would read “20+C+M+B+12?. The front door would be sprinkled with holy water for protection for the coming year. The letters C M B also stand for ”Christus Mansionem Benedictat” (Christ bless this home), this is also the tradition in Poland but the Polish people will take a small box with a gold ring, a piece of chalk, incense and a piece of amber to the church and have these things blessed, they then return home and inscribe the numbers, letters and crosses above all the doors inside their homes for protection against illness and misfortune.

In Bavaria and Austria the 6th January see children dressed as Kings carrying stars going from door to door singing songs for which they receive money, this money is then given to the charity that has been chosen for that year. Water features in many of the traditions observed in some countries, this has to do with the fact that Epiphany is also associated with the baptism of Christ. In Bulgaria and Macedonia on this day, a wooden cross is thrown by a priest into the sea, river or lake and young men race to retrieve it.As the date is in early January and the waters are close to freezing, this is considered an honourable act and it is said that good health will be bestowed upon the home of the swimmer who is the first to reach the cross, the day is also known as Yordanovden – Jordan Day which refers to the river, this is similar to Greece and Cyprus where a cross is also thrown into the water for a young man to retrieve it but here it also marks the end to the ban on sailing and a prayer for calm waters. In Egypt Epiphany is one of the seven great feasts of the Coptic Orthodox Church, it is a day of strict fasting, and several religious celebrations are held on this day. The day is related to the blessing of waters that are used all throughout the year in the church celebrations, and it is a privileged day to celebrate baptisms. It is also a day in which many houses are blessed with water.

In Romania and Moldova men take part in Horse racing after church services but before they race they ask the priest to bless their horses with holy water. The Epiphany, celebrated in Russia on January 19, marks the baptism of Jesus in the Orthodox Church. Believing that on this day water becomes holy and is imbued with special powers, Russians cut holes in the ice of lakes and rivers, often in the shape of the cross, to bathe in the freezing water. Participants in the ritual may dip themselves three times under the water, honouring the Holy Trinity, to symbolically wash away their sins from the past year, and to experience a sense of spiritual rebirth. Orthodox priests are on hand to bless the water, and rescuers are on hand to monitor the safety of the swimmers in the ice-cold water. Other less intrepid Russians may limit their participation in the Epiphany rites to those conducted inside churches, where priests perform the Great Blessing of Waters, both on Epiphany Eve and Epiphany (Theophany) proper. The water is then distributed to attendees who may store it to use in times of illness, to bless themselves, family members, and their homes, or to drink. Some Russians think any water – even from the taps on the kitchen sink – poured or bottled on Epiphany becomes holy water, since all the water in the world is blessed this day. In the more mild climate of the southern city of Sochi meanwhile, where air and water temperatures both hover in the low to mid 10 degree Celsius range (50 degrees Fahrenheit) in January, thousands of people jump into the Black Sea at midnight each year on Epiphany and begin to swim in celebration of the feast. In Ireland this day has been known as Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas, this day was set aside for the women who had worked so hard so that they could rest and have others look after them.

In England Epiphany is known as Twelfth night and was a traditional time for mumming and the wassail. The yule log was left burning until this day, and the charcoal left was kept until the next Christmas to kindle next year’s yule log, as well as to protect the house from fire and lightning. Mumming is the custom of plays and Wassail is hot, spiced cider.

In the United States, in Colorado around Manitou Springs, Epiphany is marked by the Great Fruitcake Toss. Fruitcakes are thrown, participants dress as kings, fools, etc., and competitions are held for the farthest throw, the most creative projectile device, etc. As with customs in other countries, the fruitcake toss is a sort of festive symbolic leave-taking of the Christmas holidays until next year, but with humorous twist, since fruitcake (although the traditional Christmas bread of America, England and other English speaking nations) is considered in the United States with a certain degree of derision, and is the source of many jokes. In Louisiana, Epiphany is the beginning of the Carnival season, during which it is customary to bake King Cakes, similar to the Rosca . It is round in shape, filled with cinnamon, glazed white, and coated in traditional carnival color sanding sugar. The person who finds the doll (or bean) must provide the next king cake. The interval between Epiphany and Mardi Gras is sometimes known as “king cake season”, and many may be consumed during this period. The Carnival season begins on King’s Day (Epiphany), and there are many traditions associated with that day in Louisiana and along the Catholic coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. King cakes are first sold then, Carnival krewes begin having their balls on that date, and the first New Orleans krewe parades in street cars that night.

In Colonial Virginia Epiphany, or 12th Night, was an occasion of great merriment, and was considered especially appropriate as a date for balls and dancing, as well as for weddings. On 12th Night, Great Cake was prepared, consisting in two giant layers of fruitcake, coated and filled with royal icing. Custom dictated that the youngest child present cut and serve the cake and whoever found the bean or prize in the Twelfth Night cake was crowned “King of the Bean” similar to the European king cake custom.In Tarpon Springs, Florida, the City and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church host the longest-running and largest Feast Day of the Epiphany Celebration in the United States. Tarpon Springs is known as Epiphany City. The celebration attracts Greek Americans from across the country,and the city’s population is known to triple in size for that day.