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Epiphany (also known as Three Kings Day) is one of three major Christian celebrations. It is celebrated on 6 January and commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus to the Magi or 3 wise men.
Interestingly, the bible doesn’t mention how many wise men there were – just that three gifts were given and that they came from the east.
Epiphany is derived actually from the Greek word ‘epiphaneia’ which means manifestations. Religiously, it means the appearance of an invisible divine being in a visible form.
On the Feast of the Epiphany in some parts of central Europe the priest, wearing white vestments, blesses Epiphany water, frankincense, gold, and chalk. The chalk is used to write the initials of the three magi over the doors of churches and homes.
Eastern Christians, commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. Orthodox Epiphany is celebrated on 19 January. However, in Ethiopia, it is known as Timket and in leap years it’s celebrated on 20 January instead.
Epiphany customs in Europe
- France celebrates Epiphany in an edible way. For several days from Christmas until the Feast of Epiphany, the French line up at bakeries to buy the “galette des rois” - the “Cake of Kings.” They bring these to dinner parties and enjoy them as snacks and with mid-afternoon tea. The tradition of the treats dates back to the 14th century.
- In Spain and Germany, the holiday is also known as the ‘Three Kings’ day. For Spanish children, Three Kings day is a bigger event than Christmas, with presents being delivered by the Three Kings on 5 January, giving the children a day to play with their toys and presents, before school starts again on 7 January.
- In Italy, Epiphany is the time of “La Befana” – the legendary Good Witch of Christmas, who gives gifts to children. The legend of La Befana may stretch back to pagan times. She first appeared in ancient Roman winter festivals as an aging Mother Nature, delivering her last gifts.
- In Denmark, Epiphany was abolished as an official church festival in 1770. However, the previous evening, Twelfth Night, is celebrated in some homes by burning a special Twelfth Night candle with three wicks.
- In Greece, celebrations include the traditional blessing of the waters. This is particularly striking in Piraeus, where the diver who retrieves a cross-thrown into the water by the local priest is blessed with good luck throughout the year.
- In England, the celebration of the Night before Epiphany, Epiphany Eve, is known as Twelfth Night, and was a traditional time for mumming and the wassail. A traditional dish for Epiphany was Twelfth Cake, a rich, dense, typically English fruitcake.
- In Finland, Epiphany is called loppiainen, a name which goes back to the 1600s. The Christmas tree is traditionally taken out of the house on Epiphany. Christmas celebrations in Finland are extended to Nuutti’s or St. Canute’s Day on January 13, completing the Scandinavian 20 Days of Christmas.
- Epiphany in Macedonia is known as Vodici. On this day the priest throws a wooden cross into the water, to symbolize the baptism of Christ.
- In Poland, Epiphany, or “Trzech Króli” (Three Kings) is celebrated in grand fashion, with huge parades held welcoming the Wise Men, often riding on camels or other animals from the zoo. The Wise Men pass out sweets, children process in renaissance wear, carols are sung, and living nativity scenes are enacted, all similar to celebrations in Italy or Spain, pointing to the country’s Catholic heritage.
- In Romania and Moldova, Epiphany is called Boboteaza. In south-eastern Romania, following religious services, men participate in winter horse races. Before the race, the men line up with their horses before the priest, who will bless them by sprinkling them with green branches that have been dipped into Epiphany holy water.