Epiphany is a Christian feast day celebrating God coming into the flesh as Jesus Christ. It is celebrated differently in Western and Eastern churches, and there are various customs around the world. The word "epiphany" comes from a Greek word meaning "to appear." Epiphany may have originated in the eastern half of the Roman Empire as a feast to honor Jesus' baptism, and then expanded to include a celebration of his birth, the visit of the Magi, and the events of Jesus' childhood. The day began being celebrated in the latter half of the fourth century.
In Western churches the day commemorates the visit of the Magi—the day that Jesus was revealed to Gentiles. In some Western denominations, Epiphany starts the liturgical season of Epiphanytide, and the night before is many times celebrated as Twelfth Night.
In Eastern churches Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Jesus, whereas in Western churches this is observed during the Baptism of the Lord. The day is also known as Theophany in Eastern churches, and Epiphany is one of the Great Feasts of the Eastern liturgical year.
Various traditions are observed around the world. Some Western churches participate in the chalking of doors. Chalk is used to write the initials of the three Magi over the doors of homes and churches. The names of the Magi are traditionally seen as being Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. It so happens that the same initials are also in the phrase "Christus mansionem benedicat," which translates to "may Christ bless the house." Fittingly, the blessing of houses often takes place after chalking. Star singing, which includes going door to door, is popular in some countries. Three kings cakes are popular along the US Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana, but also in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. In New Orleans, Epiphany marks the beginning of the carnival season. Winter swimming is popular in Eastern Europe and Russia during Epiphany. Another important tradition of Epiphany is attending church services. Finally, many people spend Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, removing Christmas decorations. Some people do this on other days though, such as Candlemas.
How to Observe
There are various ways to celebrate Epiphany:
- take down your Christmas decorations (today also happens to be National Take Down the Christmas Tree Day too)
- participate in a house chalking or house blessing
- go winter swimming
- attend a church service
- make a three kings cake
- do some star singing
- listen to the two cantatas that Johann Sebastian Bach composed for Epiphany
- sing or listen to carols such as "As with Gladness, Men of Old" or "We Three Kings of Orient Are"