The Adoration of the Magi

Sara and Justin Kraft

8 Wonderful International Ways to Celebrate the Epiphany

Epiphany is the celebration of the manifestation (or materialization) of Christ, the son of God and his divinity to the world.  The feast celebrates three major events in the life of Christ.  First, it celebrates the coming of the Magi (or the Wise Men).  Traditionally, most nativities picture three Wise Men (perhaps because the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were given).  However, the Bible never specifies the number of Magi.

During Advent, we prayed and waited in darkness for the coming of Christ.  At Christmas, the Light of Christ shined, but only to those gathered around the manager:  Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds.  On Epiphany, the light shines forth to people of all nations.  The revealing of Christ to the kings at Bethlehem is a symbol of His revelation to the entire non-Jewish world.  Epiphany presents to us the calling of not merely a chosen few, but all nations to Christianity. 

Second, it celebrates the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, and also the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. In the United States, we celebrate the epiphany the second Sunday following Christmas.  In other countries, the more traditional date of January 6 is observed. Pope Francis explains:

The destiny of every person is symbolized in this journey of the Magi of the East: our life is a journey, illuminated by the lights which brighten our way, to find the fullness of truth and love which we Christians recognize in Jesus, the Light of the World. Like the Magi, every person has two great ‘books’ which provide the signs to guide this pilgrimage: the book of creation and the book of sacred Scripture. What is important is that we be attentive, alert, and listen to God who speaks to us, who always speaks to us. As the Psalm says in referring to the Law of the Lord: ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps 119:105). Listening to the Gospel, reading it, meditating on it and making it our spiritual nourishment especially allows us to encounter the living Jesus, to experience him and his love.”

In addition to the Gospel, we can also reflect of the deep and rich traditions of nations around the world to help us more fully celebrate this great feast.

1. England

The celebration of the Night before Epiphany (also known as Epiphany Eve) is known as Twelfth Night).  It traditionally is a time for plays, practical jokes (similar to April Fools’ Day), Twelfth Night Cake, and wassailing. 

The Yule Log was lit on Christmas day and remained burning until Tweflth Night in order to bring good fortune to the house for the coming year.  Its remains were kept to kindle the next year’s Yule log in addition to protect the house from fire and lightning.  For Christians, the symbolism of the Yule log was that it represented the need to keep the stable warm for baby Jesus.  These days, log shaped chocolate cakes are eaten around Christmas time for Yule logs.

The Twelfth Night cake is a rich and dense fruitcake which contained a bean.  If you got the bean, you were King or Queen of the Bean and everyone had to do what the King or Queen told them to do.  Other items hidden in the cake include a clove (for the villain) and a twig (for the fool).
 Wassailing is a way of way of passing on good wishes amongst family and friends.  Wassail is an ale drink seasoned with spices and honey.  Wassail gets its name from the Old English term “waes hael” meaning “be well.”  

One of the most popular Wassailing Carols is:

“Here we come a-wassailing Among the leaves so green, Here we come a-wassailing, So fair to be seen: Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too, And God bless you and send you, A happy New Year, And God send you, A happy new year.”

2. France

In France, Epiphany used to be a day of celebration of banquets and celebration.  Since the French are now attempting to recover from the excess eating and celebrations of Christmas and New Years, currently there is less feasting.  However, it is still common to eat the Kings’ Cake, called Galette des Rois.  It is a puff pastry cake which is stuffed with almond and sugar paste.  Inserted in the Kings’ Cake is a small porcelain bean or figurine.  The person who finds the bean typically wears a gold paper crown.  

The tradition of eating a Kings’ Cake dates back to the Middle Ages.  On Epiphany, a large collection was taken at church.  The parishioners in charge of the collection received a galette to be divided in equal portions among them.  Eventually, the tradition spread and each household shared a cake to share with all family members and servants.  The first slice was reserved for the first poor who would knock at the door.  This slice was known as the “Good Lord’s slice.”

3. Germany

Groups of young people called Sternsinger (also known as Star Singers) travel door to door dressed as the three Wiseman, plus the leader carrying a star.  These singers will be offered treats at the homes they visit, but they also ask for donations for worthy causes.  The young people then perform the traditional house blessing by marking the year over the doorway with chalk.  This protects the inhabitants from evil in the upcoming year.  They will write 20 + C + M + B + 16 (The year surrounds the traditional names of the Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar).  Others claim the CMB stands for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” (Christ Bless This House).  Regardless, it is a great tradition to utilize to bless the house.  The book “Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers” published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has the blessing and brief prayer service you can utilize for your home if you wish to observe this practice.

Additionally, Germans eat a golden pastry ring filled with orange and spice representing gold, frankincense and myrrh for a Three Kings cake.  The person who receives the piece containing the trinket becomes king or queen for the day.  Also, it is tradition to decorate Christmas trees with cookies and other sweets.  On Epiphany, the Christmas trees are plundered of their cookies and sweets by children (and hungry adults). 

4. Ireland

Irish describe Epiphany as “Little Christmas” or “Women’s Christmas.”  After the cooking and work of the Christmas holidays, women traditionally rested and celebrated for themselves on the Feast of Epiphany. Women gathered on Epiphany for high tea accompanied by wine to honor the Miracle at the Wedding of Cana.  A special cake would be made and a candle lit and placed in the cake for each member for the family.  As each candle would go out, that would symbolize the order of death for each family member.  

5. Philippines

In the Philippines, custom is to have children leave shoes out on the eve of Epiphany to receive sweets and money from the Three Kings, similar to what European children do for St. Nicholas on his feast day.   Some towns have parades of three men dressed in royal robes riding on horses giving candy and gifts to children.

6. Poland

In Poland, the evening of the Epiphany is called szczodry wieczor, which means a bountiful or plentiful evening.  On the Feast, the family takes blessed chalk, foil, and incense, marking the home with the initials of the Three Wise Men along with the year.  
Over 90 cities also celebrate processions for Epiphany, a religious holiday.  These are also known as the Three Wise Men Procession.  

7. Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, they celebrate Los Reyes or Three Kings.  On January 5, children cut grass or greenery and put it in a box under their bed.  This is grass for the camels to eat.  Their wish list is placed on top of the grass.  The Reyes only visit if the children are good throughout the year and if they are asleep when the kings arrive.  Sometime during the night Los Reyes arrive and quietly leave their gifts for the children while their camels enjoy their snack of grass.  When the children wake up, they have toys and other presents in the boxes instead of grass.  It is a day full of celebration.  Additionally, later in the day friends and relatives enjoy a holiday dinner. 

8. Russia

In Russia, the feast of the Epiphany is dedicated to the baptizing of Christ in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.   They conduct the rite of the Great Blessing of the Waters, also known as "the Great Sanctification of the Water" either on the day or the evening before. A priest leads a procession often to the baptismal font but traditionally the worshipers would go to a nearby lake or river. In villages, participants still go to a nearby lake or river.  In cities, they place wooden tubs filled with water in temples.  It should be noted that that in January, the water is icy cold!  Despite the uncomfortable waters, it is still very popular among Russians today, and it is believed that the best way to get healthier in body and spirit is to bathe in the water immediately after the festive worship service. 

Historical records indicate that the blessing of the waters events took place at the courts of Moscow Czars since before 1525. Traditionally, the blessing of the waters procession was the most magnificent of the annual Czar's court's ceremonies, comparable only to such special events as royal coronations and weddings. After a divine liturgy in the Cathedral, the procession, led by the Czar and the Patriarch (the chief of the Russian Church) of Moscow, accompanied by high-ranking aristocrats and churchmen would proceed to the frozen Moscow River. 

Over a hole in the ice, a small gazebo called Iordan' (in remembrance of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River) was put on the ice and decorated with holy icons, including the four Gospel writers.  

The Patriarch would plunge a cross into the river's water and sprinkle those present with the holy water. Following the ritual, the people could partake of the holy water.  Holy water would then be brought back to be used to bless the Czar's palace.  Similar events would take place in the parishes throughout the nation on a smaller scale.  (Bushkovitch, Paul (1992), Religion and Society in Russia: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Oxford University Press, p. 42)

As you can see, the Epiphany is celebrated throughout the world with in various forms.  As Pope Francis reminds us:

As we recall Jesus’ manifestation to humanity in the face of a Child, may we sense the Magi at our side, as wise companions on the way. Their example helps us to lift our gaze towards the star and to follow the great desires of our heart. They teach us not to be content with a life of mediocrity, of ‘playing it safe’, but to let ourselves be attracted always by what is good, true and beautiful… by God, who is all of this, and so much more! And they teach us not to be deceived by appearances, by what the world considers great, wise and powerful. We must not stop at that. It is necessary to guard the faith. Today this is of vital importance: to keep the faith. We must press on further, beyond the darkness, beyond the voices that raise alarm, beyond worldliness, beyond so many forms of modernity that exist today. We must press on towards Bethlehem, where, in the simplicity of a dwelling on the outskirts, beside a mother and father full of love and of faith, there shines forth the Sun from on high, the King of the universe. By the example of the Magi, with our little lights, may we seek the Light and keep the faith."

How do you celebrate this feast?