When is Epiphany (07.05.2018)
Observed in Countries with Christian populations
Observed on January 6
Observed by Christians
The word epiphany, which means “the appearance; miraculous phenomenon” in Greek, is a Christian feast that commemorates the revelation or “shining forth” of God to humanity in the person of Jesus.
The word epiphany is also translated as “(divine) manifestation.” The roots of this observance can be traced back to the Eastern Christian Churches. According to the Bible, the three Magi (wise men)-Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar-spotted a bright star in the skies on the night Jesus was born. They followed the star to Bethlehem, found the infant Jesus there, and presented the divine child with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates Jesus’ childhood events leading up to his baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
The feast was initially celebrated as the Jewish Feast of Lights (Hanukkah in Hebrew), which usually takes place toward the end of December. Just as the Festival of Lights dispels darkness and gloom, separating the past from the future, so also the Nativity (Christmas), or the birth of the Messiah, symbolizes new life and hope for the future.
January 6 is considered the last day of the Christmas season and has its distinct customs, symbols, and rituals. On this day carol singers traditionally go from one house to the next in some countries.
In many cultures, the Christmas tree is also taken down; in some areas, the old Christmas trees are piled up and burned in a bonfire. This is a particularly merry occasion for children. In several parts of Germany, along with taking down the tree, the tradition of plündern, or “raiding” the tree is a custom that involves grabbing cookies and sugarplums off the tree, an entertaining event eagerly anticipated by children. This custom probably began when Christmas trees stood on tables and the decorative items placed on them were customarily foodstuffs: gilded nuts, cookies and candies, fresh apples, and wafers shaped like stars. In addition to the sugarplums, chocolate ornaments wrapped in foil, candies, or cookies were given as rewards to the “raiders.” Epiphany is a more ancient celebration than Christmas because Jesus’ birthday was not fixed on December 25 until 354. In terms of religious significance, this holiday is more important than Christmas but less important than Easter and Pentecost.
In Eastern Orthodox Churches, bodies of water are blessed on this day.
Origins and History
The history of the Nativity is closely bound up with the feast of the Epiphany, which was also called the Second Nativity because it was seen as Jesus’ second manifestation to the world. While the Western Christian Churches celebrate December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth, the Eastern Christian Churches, which adhere to the Julian calendar, regard January 6 as the birthday of Jesus. January 6 was considered Jesus’ physical birthday in the town of Bethlehem as well.
In the Western church, Christmas was established before Epiphany; in the fourth century C.E., December 25 was eventually adopted by the Roman Catholic Church as the Feast of Jesus’ birth. The practice of holding a 12-day festival in the West, starting December 25 and ending January 6, was probably an attempt to reconcile the differences in the dates and their meaning. This period is often called the Twelve Days of Christmas. However, some Christian cultures, especially those in South America, stretch the period to 40 days, concluding the festivities on February 2, or Candlemas.
In the Germanic West (the northern European stock that includes the German, Dutch, Scandinavian, British, and related peoples), the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated as the Festival of the Three Kings (or Magi), or simply as Twelfth Night.
Before 1970, the Roman Catholic Church observed Epiphany as an eight-day feast starting on January 6 and ending on the 13th of the same month; hence, it was also called the Octave of Epiphany. Recently, however, Roman Catholics in the United States have started commemorating Epiphany on the Sunday that follows the first Saturday of the New Year, while most Anglicans and Catholics officially end the holiday season on the Sunday following January 6.
For the present Eastern Orthodox Churches, January 6 is also treated as the day of Jesus’ baptism.
For them, the importance of Epiphany lies in the revelation and the “shining forth” of Jesus as a savior and the second person of the Holy Trinity, when he was baptized by St. John the Baptist. According to the Bible, Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan is the only time when each individual of the Christian Holy Trinity simultaneously manifested itself before humanity: God the Father spoke from the skies; God the Son was baptized in the River Jordan; and God the Holy Spirit descended in the shape of a dove. This feast is also called the Feast of Theophany.
(Theophany means “ God shining forth” in Greek.) The Eastern Orthodox Churches perform a ritual called the “Blessing of the Waters” on this day.
Following a Mass, clerics go to the nearest body of water, be it a harbor, a river, a quay, a lake, or even a swimming pool, and, following a brief ceremony, throw a cross into the water. If swimming is possible and the water is not too cold, many people jump in, trying to retrieve the cross.
The person who recovers the cross hands it back to the cleric, who then specially blesses the swimmer and his or her family. Such rituals have become quite popular.
Certain interesting and special traditions were observed in various countries on the eve of Epiphany. In some countries, herbs would be burned in a fire, and their smell filled the entire house. Holy water would be sprinkled on doorways, and the head of the house would write C + M + B with a piece of chalk and say, “Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, behütet uns auch für dieses Jahr, vor Feuer und vor Wassergefahr” (“Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar, shelter us this year again from the perils of fire and water”).
The letters have traditionally been associated with Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; however, the Church opines that the letters stand for Christus Mansionem Benedictat, or “Christ, bless this home.”