In western Christian tradition, January 6 is celebrated as Epiphany. It goes by other names in various church traditions. In Hispanic and Latin culture, as well as some places in Europe, it is known as Three Kings’ Day ([Spanish]: el Dia de los Tres Reyes, la Fiesta de Reyes, or el Dia de los Reyes Magos; Dutch: Driekoningendag).
Because of differences in church calendars, mainly between the Eastern Orthodox and the western Catholic and Protestant traditions, both Christmas and Epiphany have been observed at different times in the past. Today, most of the Eastern Orthodox traditions follow the western church calendar. The exceptions are some Greek Orthodox Churches and related traditions (for example, Russian and Serbian Orthodox) that still follow the older calendar and celebrate Epiphany as the Theophany on January 19th.
Epiphany is the climax of the Advent/Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are usually counted from the evening of December 25th until the morning of January 6th, which is the Twelfth Day. In following this older custom of counting the days beginning at sundown, the evening of January 5th is the Twelfth Night. This is an occasion for feasting in some cultures, including the baking of a special King’s Cake as part of the festivities of Epiphany (a King’s Cake is part of the observance of Mardi Gras in French Catholic culture of the Southern USA).
In some church traditions, only the full days are counted so that January 5th is the Eleventh Day of Christmas, January 6th is the Twelfth Day, and the evening of January 6th is counted as the Twelfth Night.
The Season of the Church Year associated with Christmas actually begins with the first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas Day. Advent is marked by expectation and anticipation in preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus. Christmas begins with Christmas Day December 25 and lasts for Twelve Days until Epiphany, January 6, which looks ahead to the mission of the church to the world in light of the Nativity. The one or two Sundays between Christmas Day and Epiphany are sometimes called Christmastide.
For many Protestant church traditions, the season of Epiphany extends from January 6th until Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent leading to Easter. Depending on the timing of Easter, this longer period of Epiphany includes from four to nine Sundays. Other traditions, especially the Roman Catholic tradition, observe Epiphany as a single day, with the Sundays following Epiphany counted as Ordinary Time. In some western traditions, the last Sunday of Epiphany is celebrated as Transfiguration Sunday.
The term epiphany means “to show” or “to make known” or even “to reveal.” In Western churches, it remembers the coming of the wise men bringing gifts to visit the Christ child, who by so doing “reveal” Jesus to the world as Lord and King. In some Central and South American countries influenced by Catholic tradition, Three Kings’ Day, or the night before, is the time for opening Christmas presents. In some eastern churches, Epiphany or the Theophany commemorates Jesus’ baptism, with the visit of the Magi linked to Christmas. In some churches the day is celebrated as Christmas, with Epiphany/Theophany occurring on January 19th.
Symbols of Epiphany
The colors of Epiphany are usually the colors of Christmas, white and gold, the colors of celebration, newness, and hope that mark the most sacred days of the church year. In traditions that only observe a single day for Epiphany, the colors are often changed after Epiphany to the colors of Ordinary Time, usually green or thematic sanctuary colors, until Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. The colors for Transfiguration Sunday are usually the colors of Holy Days, white and gold.
The traditional liturgical symbols of Epiphany are usually associated with the Magi. The symbols include either three crowns or a single crown, various portrayals of the Magi or Wise Men, three gifts, a five pointed star, or a combination of a star and crown. A more modern symbol of Epiphany is a globe or a stylized portrayal of the world.
Around January 6, the symbol +C+B+M+ with two numbers before and two numbers after (for example, 20+C+B+M+10) is sometimes seen written in chalk above the doorway of Christian homes. The letters are the initials of the traditional names of the Three Magi: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These letters also abbreviate the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless the house.” The beginning and ending numbers are the year, 2010 in the example above. The crosses represent Christ.
Marking the lintels of doorways is an old European practice that originally had overtones of magic (protection of the house). However, the symbols are now used throughout the world and usually represent a traditional Epiphany prayer and blessing.
A Blessing for the Marking of Doorways
Leader: Peace be with this house and with all who live here.
Response (All): And peace be with all who enter here.
Leader: During these days of the Christmas season, we keep this Feast of Epiphany, celebrating the manifestation of Christ to the Magi, and thereby to the whole world. Today, Christ is manifest to us! Today this home is a holy place because of the presence of Christ here.
Leader: Listen to the Gospel according to Matthew. [2:1 – 2:12]
Leader: This is the word of the Lord to you.
Response (All): Thanks be to God!
Leader: O God, Lord of all that exists, you revealed your only-begotten Son to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill each of us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Response (All): Amen
Significance of Epiphany in the Church
As with most aspects of the Christian liturgical calendar, Epiphany has theological significance as a teaching tool in the church. The Wise Men or Magi who brought gifts to the child Jesus were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as “King” and so were the first to “show” or “reveal” Jesus to a wider world as the incarnate Christ. This act of worship by the Magi, which corresponded to Simeon’s blessing that this child Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), was one of the first indications that Jesus came for all people, of all nations, of all races, and that the work of God in the world would not be limited to only a few.
The day is now observed as a time of focusing on the mission of the church in reaching others by “showing” Jesus as the Savior of all people. It is also a time of focusing on Christian brotherhood and fellowship, especially in healing the divisions of prejudice and bigotry that we all too often create between God’s children.