While the hustle and bustle of Christmas ends for many people on Dec. 26, throughout Christian history Christmas lasts for twelve days – all the way until Jan. 6.
This feast marking the end of Christmas is called “Epiphany.”
In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, Epiphany celebrates the
revelation that Jesus was the Son of God. It focuses primarily on this
revelation to the Three Wise Men, but also in his baptism in the Jordan
and at the wedding at Cana.
In the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, Theophany – as Epiphany
is known in the East – commemorates the manifestation of Jesus' divinity
at his Baptism in the River Jordan.
While the traditional date for the feast is Jan. 6, in the United
States the celebration of Epiphany is moved to the next Sunday,
overlapping with the rest of the Western Church’s celebration of the
Baptism of Christ.
However, the meaning of the feast goes deeper than just the bringing
of presents or the end of Christmas, says Fr. Hezekias Carnazzo, a
Melkite Catholic priest and founding executive director of the
Virginia-based Institute of Catholic Culture.
“You can't understand the Nativity without Theophany; or you can’t
understand Nativity without Epiphany.” The revelation of Christ as the
Son of God – both as an infant and at his baptism – illuminate the
mysteries of the Christmas season, he said.
“Our human nature is blinded because of sin and we’re unable to see
as God sees,” he told CNA. “God reveals to us the revelation of what’s
Origins of Epiphany
While the Western celebration of Epiphany (which comes from Greek,
meaning “revelation from above”), and the Eastern celebration of
Theophany (meaning “revelation of God”), have developed their own
traditions and liturgical significances, these feasts share more than
the same day.
“The Feast of Epiphany, or the Feast of Theophany, is a very, very
early feast,” said Fr. Carnazzo. “It predates the celebration of
Christmas on the 25th.”
In the early Church, Christians, particularly those in the East,
celebrated the advent of Christ on Jan. 6 by commemorating Nativity,
Visitation of the Magi, Baptism of Christ and the Wedding of Cana all in
one feast of the Epiphany.
By the fourth century, both Christmas and
Epiphany had been set as separate feasts in some dioceses. At the
Council of Tours in 567, the Church set both Christmas day and Epiphany
as feast days on the Dec. 25 and Jan. 6, respectively, and named the
twelve days between the feasts as the Christmas season.
Over time, the Western Church separated the remaining feasts into
their own celebrations, leaving the celebration of the Epiphany to
commemorate primarily the Visitation of the Magi to see the newborn
Christ on Jan. 6.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Churches' celebration of
Theophany celebrates Christ’s baptism and is one of the holiest feast
days of the liturgical calendar.
The celebration of the visitation of the Magi – whom the Bible
describes as learned wise men from the East – has developed its own
distinct traditions throughout the Roman Church.
As part of the liturgy of the Epiphany, it is traditional to proclaim
the date of Easter and other moveable feast days to the faithful –
formally reminding the Church of the importance of Easter and the
resurrection to both the liturgical year and to the faith.
Other cultural traditions have also arisen around the feast. Dr.
Matthew Bunson, EWTN Senior Contributor, told CNA about the “rich
cultural traditions” in Spain, France, Ireland and elsewhere that form
an integral part of the Christmas season for those cultures.
In Italy, La Befana brings sweets and presents to children not on
Christmas, but on Epiphany. Children in many parts of Latin America, the
Philippines, Portugal, and Spain also receive their presents on “Three
Meanwhile, in Ireland, Catholics celebrate “Women's Christmas” –
where women rest from housework and cleaning and celebrate together with
a special meal. Epiphany in Poland is marked by taking chalk – along
with gold, incense and amber – to be blessed at Mass.
Back at home,
families will inscribe the first part of the year, followed by the
letters, “K+M+B+” and then the last numbers of the year on top of every
door in the house.
The letters, Bunson explained, stand for the names traditionally
given to the wise men – Casper, Melchior and Balthazar – as well as for
the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat,” or, “Christ, bless this
In nearly every part of the world, Catholics celebrate Epiphany with a
Kings Cake: a sweet cake that sometimes contains an object like a
figurine or a lone nut. In some locations lucky recipient of this prize
either gets special treatment for the day, or they must then hold a
party at the close of the traditional Epiphany season on Feb. 2.
These celebrations, Bunson said, point to the family-centered nature
of the feast day and of its original celebration with the Holy Family.
The traditions also point to what is known – and what is still
mysterious – about the Magi, who were the first gentiles to encounter
While the Bible remains silent about the wise men’s actual
names, as well as how many of them there were, we do know that they were
clever, wealthy, and most importantly, brave.
“They were willing to take the risk in order to go searching for the
truth, in what they discerned was a monumental event,” he said, adding
that the Magi can still be a powerful example.
Lastly, Bunson pointed to the gifts the wise men brought –
frankincense, myrrh and gold – as gifts that point not only to Christ’s
divinity and his revelation to the Magi as the King of Kings, but also
to his crucifixion. In giving herbs traditionally used for burial, these
gifts, he said, bring a theological “shadow, a sense of anticipation of
what is to come.”
Revelation of God
Fr. Hezekias Carnazzo explained to CNA the significance of the feast
of the Theophany – and of Christ’s Baptism more broadly – within the
Eastern Catholic churches.
“In our Christian understanding in the East, we are looking at
creation through the eyes of God, not so much through the eyes of Man,”
Fr. Carnazzo said.
In the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, he continued, there is special divine significance.
With this feast day, the pastor explained, “God has come to reclaim
us for himself.” Because of original sin, he continued, humanity has
inherited “a human nature which has been dislocated from its source of
Sin also effected parts of creation such as water have also been
separated from their purpose and connection to God’s plan for life, Fr.
Carrazzo said, because its original purpose is not just to sustain our
bodies, but our souls as well.
“With the fall, however, it has been dislocated from its source of
life, it is under the dominion of death- it doesn’t have eternal life
anymore. So God comes to take it to himself.”
“What Jesus did was to take our human nature and do with it what we
could not do – which is, to walk it out of death, and that’s exactly
what He did with His baptism.” As it is so linked to the destruction of
death and reclaiming of life, the Feast of Theophany is also very
closely linked to the Crucifixion – an attribute that is reflected in
Eastern iconography of both events as well.
The feast of the Theophany celebrates not only Christ’s conquering of
sin through baptism, but also God’s revelation of Christ as his Son and
the beginning of Christ’s ministry. “The baptism of the Lord, just like
the Nativity, is not just a historical event: it’s a revelation,” Fr.
To mark the day, Eastern Catholics begin celebrations with Divine
Liturgy at the Church, which includes a blessing of the waters in the
baptistry. After the water is blessed, the faithful drink the water, and
bring bottles of water to bring back to their homes for use and not
only physical but spiritual healing, he explained. Many parishes hold
feasts after Liturgy is over.
In many Middle Eastern cultures, people
also fry and eat awamat – dough that is fried until it floats, and then
is covered in honey.
During the Theophany season, priests also try to visit each home in
the parish to bless the house with Holy Water that was blessed at
Theophany. Fr. Carrazzo invited all Roman Catholics to come and become
familiar, “to be part of a family” and join in celebrating Eastern