January 6, which is 12 days after Christmas, is the feast day of the Epiphany, also known as Theophany (manifestation of God), or Three Kings’ Day because it marks the visit of the Magi or Three Wise Men to the crib of the baby Jesus. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “showing forth”. It celebrates the revelation of God in his human and divine Son, Jesus Christ.
The kings are important visitors to the crib of the baby Jesus because their visit illustrates that Jesus was the King of kings who came for Jew and the Gentile alike. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi found the baby Jesus by following a star across the desert to Bethlehem. The three wise men – named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – represented Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively. The Magi offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gold represented the royal standing of the Christ child, the frankincense marked His divine birth, and myrrh, used for embalming the dead, symbolized Christ’s mortality.
Epiphany is one of the oldest Christian feasts. It has been celebrated since the end of the second century, even before the Christmas holiday was established. Like other Christian celebrations, the church appropriated Epiphany from an old pagan festival. As early as 1996 BCE, Egyptians celebrated the winter solstice, which then occurred on January 6, with a tribute to Aeon, the Virgin.
In the West, Christians began celebrating the Epiphany in the 4th century, associating it with the visit of the Three Wise Men to Jesus. During the medieval period, Christmas was celebrated for the 12 days from Christmas Eve on December 24, until the Epiphany on January 6th. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night (1601) was actually called What You Will but it was to be performed as Twelfth Night entertainment for the close of the Christmas season and so appropriated its festive play date as its title. Even up until the 19th century, January 6 was as big a celebration as Christmas Day.
The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches emphasize the visit of the Magi when they celebrate the Epiphany, but in the Eastern Orthodox Church the Epiphany marks when John the Baptist baptized Christ in the River Jordan, which is the first event in Christ’s life that led to his crucifixion. In the Orthodox Church, Epiphany refers not only to the day itself but to the church season that follows culminating in Lent.
In Greek Orthodox tradition, a priest will bless the waters by throwing a cross into it as worshippers compete to retrieve it. In Prague, there is a traditional Three Kings’ swim to commemorate Epiphany Day at the Vltava River. The three kings make an entry in many cities in Spain on Epiphany Eve, accompanied by military bands and drummers in medieval dress.
In some European countries, children dress as the three kings and visit houses on January 6th, singing about the birth of Jesus and paying homage to the King of kings. They are rewarded with sweets. Some leave their shoes out the night before to be filled with gifts, while others leave straw for the three kings’ horses. In many Latin American countries, it is the three wise men and not Santa Claus to whom children write letters telling how good they were and asking for what they would like. It is the three kings who then bring gifts for children. In France Le Jour des Rois (the Day of Kings) is celebrated with parties for children and adults.
Epiphany is a public holiday in many countries, but not in Canada.