Epiphany occurs in the Christian calendar on January 6. It signifies the event of the Magi, or Wise Men, visiting the baby Jesus, and is known in some Latin cultures as Three Kings Day. In the Eastern (Orthodox and Oriental) churches, it is known as the Feast of Theophany (God Manifest), commemorating Jesus’ baptism with the attendant appearance of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the voice of God the Father. This story is recounted in all four Gospels of the New Testament. This date is also tied to Jesus’ miracle of changing the water to wine at the Wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John, Chapter 2.
Christmas vs. Advent
So, the 12 Days of Christmas don’t end at Christmas, Advent does. Instead, the 12 days start with Christmas and end with Epiphany. These 12 days are sometimes called Christmastide. The subsequent “season” of Epiphany lasts from January 6 through the day before Lent. Some Latin American and European cultures extend this season to February 2 or Candlemas.
In the East
Epiphany is a Greek word that means manifestation, appearance, or showing forth. Historically, Epiphany began in the eastern Church as the celebration of the nativity of Jesus Christ. As the celebration of Christmas spread eastward, Epiphany changed to its present meaning. It is ironic that in years when Chanukah overlaps Christmastide, that Epiphany is so close to Chanukah. We recall that the villain in the Chanukah history was Antiochus Epiphanes IV, or “Antiochus, God made manifest.”
In the West
In the Western churches (Protestants, Catholics, and Anglicans) Epiphany commemorates the “adoration” of the Christ Child by the Magi as they presented their gifts. In this way, they were “revealing” Jesus to the world as Lord and King.
The preceding evening is sometimes called the “Twelfth Night,” being the 12th Day of Christmas. William Shakespeare‘s play by the same name, sometimes called “What You Will,” was believed to have been written as entertainment for this last day of Christmas.
There remains some confusion on which date Twelfth Night actually occurs.The older tradition, based on the custom during the Middle Ages that the beginning of a day started the evening before places Twelfth Night the eve of January 5. Later traditions, where the day begins at midnight have Twelfth Night on January 6 with a party and the exchange of gifts. The Russian church’s Christmas, or “Feast of the Nativity,” is celebrated on January 7. Many Eastern Orthodox churches follow the older Julian Calendar rather than the more widely accepted Gregorian Calendar. The Julian Calendar December 25 corresponds to approximately January 7 in the Gregorian Calendar.
January 5 is Paramony, the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany, paralleling the December 24 Feast of Christmas Eve.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian