The Meaning and Traditions of the Epiphany
A celebration of Three Kings Day on January 6
If you have already packed up your Christmas tree, recycled all the wrapping paper and New Year’s Eve champagne bottles, and flipped off the lights that turned your house into a holiday show, we have bad news for you—the holidays aren’t over quite yet.
Remember the song “The 12 Days of Christmas”? Well the 12th day of the holiday season lands on January 6. That is the day known as Epiphany, or “Three Kings Day”, which marks the occasion when, according to the Bible, the three kings—also called the three wise men or Magi—arrived in Bethlehem to meet the baby Jesus.
While Christmas is celebrated on December 25th to mark the birth of the baby Jesus those who know their Bible stories remember that the three kings didn’t show up until a few weeks later. Christmas carol aficionados may recall from the song “We Three Kings”, those three noble men spotted “a star of wonder” in the night sky, recognized it as a divine sign, and set out to find its source. They traveled “over field and fountain, moor and mountain” as they were “following yonder star” to Bethlehem. Once there, according to the Book of Matthew, the kings Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar paid homage to the newborn Jesus with their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh.
How you celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany depends on your religion. As USA Today notes, most Southern Protestants hear about Epiphany at church on the Sunday closest to Jan. 6. Depending on the pastor’s proclivities, a congregation could hear about Epiphany once during the year or hear sermons for an entire “season of Epiphany,” which wraps up on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the Lenten season. For Catholics, the Pope marks the occasion by delivering an annual Epiphany homily during Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Of course, some Orthodox churches use a different church calendar, per USA Today, and won’t celebrate Epiphany until a later date in January.
Around the world, Epiphany is celebrated with gifts, especially for kids, and cake. In Latinx culture, Jan. 6 is “Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos,” or Day of the Three Wise Kings, which requires a Roscon de Reyes (Spanish Twelfth Night Bread), a traditional dessert. Southerners, especially those who have been in New Orleans during the Epiphany season, which begins on Kings Day, January 6, and lasts through Fat Tuesday. The traditional king cake is the colorful ring-shaped cake that comes with a tiny plastic baby baked inside that have become part of the city’s Mardi Gras festivities. The cakes are decorated with sugars in symbolic colors—purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power)—all meant to honor the three kings from Biblical history with the baby supposedly representing the newborn Jesus. They are a delicious way to mark Epiphany for those who remember the reason for the season or those who just like a good piece of cake.