Epiphany is a holy day that celebrates the revelation of Jesus to three Wise Men (or Kings) when they arrived at His place of birth after following the unusual star in the sky. Often, we picture the Wise Men arriving on Christmas night and gathering around the Manger of the new-born Jesus along with the shepherds, but in fact they arrived perhaps as much as two years later, which is why Epiphany is celebrated 12 days after Christmas.
The feast of the Epiphany, which was kept in the East and in certain Western Churches before being observed in Rome, seems to have been originally a feast of the nativity. January 6, for those churches where it was kept, was the equivalent of Christmas (December 25) in the Roman Church. The feast was introduced at Rome in the second half of the sixth century and became the complement and, so to say, the crown of the Christmas festival.
Epiphany means manifestation, originating from the Greek word epiphaneia. What the Church celebrates on this day is the manifestation of Our Lord to the whole world.
After first being made known to the shepherds of Bethlehem, representing the Jewish people, He is revealed to the Magi who have come from the East to adore Him. Christian tradition has always seen in the Magi the first fruits of the Gentiles; they lead in their wake all the peoples of the earth, and thus the Epiphany is an affirmation of universal salvation.
Although many of its rich traditions have fallen into neglect, Epiphany is a day filled with history and heritage. As Catholics of the twenty-first century, we are free to appreciate and observe any of the traditions of this marvellous feast day as described below.
1) The arrival of the Three Kings
This is a simple little tradition, but adds to the festivity of the season. A few days after Christmas the three kings can be moved from the manger scene and placed at a distance. Each day, they can progress closer and closer to the Child Jesus until they finally arrive on January 6th.
Children especially love watching the Wise Men move, and it can be very enjoyable to let them take turns being the ones to move them. Speaking of children, in some cultures the Wise Men bring little gifts for the children. They would probably be just as happy with some family crafting time, though. There are many activities from making little paper figurines to creating individualized crowns.
2) Twelfth Night party
It is the season for being festive! When everyone else has put the holidays behind them and are glumly just awaiting the next occasion, Epiphany is the perfect occasion to celebrate with friends and family. Traditionally, the party would be on the eve of Epiphany and is called a Twelfth Night party for the last day of Christmas.
How to celebrate? With food, of course! A typical Twelfth Night party menu might look something like this:
Soup or Salad
Meals begin with a light soup or salad that features local ingredients. Since many countries that celebrate Twelfth Night are in the Mediterranean, Costa Rica, Mexico or other warm regions, this course is generally kept light and suitable for dining outside in a warm climate.
Mexican soups and salads may feature yucca, nopales and plantains. You can duplicate the same idea by preparing a soup or salad featuring locally grown produce.
Picadillo Meat Course
Picadillo is an all-purpose Latin American Spanish word for usually mince dishes sautéed with onions, tomatoes, garlic and herbs. Picadillo is used as a filling in tamales, enchiladas and as a layer in casseroles.
Create your own picadillo main course with hamburger, slow-cooked brisket, beef roast or pork tenderloin. Estimate 4 to 6 ounces of meat per serving and 2 to 3 ounces of produce per serving. Add 2 tablespoons of oil to a large frying pan and sauté one diced whole white onion over medium heat until translucent and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes and chopped hot or sweet peppers if desired, and sauté another 10 minutes. Add the meat and two to three cloves of minced garlic and cook the meat thoroughly if raw, or heat through if pre-cooked.
Traditionally, picadillo is served over rice, but you can also serve it over pasta or mashed potatoes.
Rice, With Legumes or Corn
Traditional side dishes for a Twelfth Night meal are black beans and rice, which are also staple accompaniments for many Spanish-influenced daily meals. However, some families have a tradition of serving the rice with peas or corn instead.
Prepare the beans and rice separately. Dried beans will require more time and may require overnight soaking and use of a slow cooker or pressure cooker. For a speedier solution, simply use canned beans, which should be warmed in their juice for 10 minutes over medium heat. Drain before serving. A rice cooker will make preparing rice much easier, but with either a rice cooker or stovetop, figure at least 40 minutes for the rice.
Serve rice and beans side by side on a platter. Fresh peas or corn may be mixed into the rice while the rice is steaming.
After all this food, you may want to have a sing-a-long to work up an appetite for the crowning presentation of the King’s cake. A highly underrated form of entertainment in our digital age is to actually gather around and sing. For Epiphany, “We Three Kings” is the obvious choice. If you have willing singers, have each of the middle verses sung by a different person to represent a different wise man. Bonus points if the Kings have elaborate costumes!
3) Epiphany cake
The Epiphany Cake, or King Cake, is easily the best part of Epiphany because well, who doesn’t love cake? The King’s Cake is also eaten at Mardi Gras, but Epiphany is more in keeping with the liturgical season. The King’s Cake is shaped into an open circle, or wreath, and studded with candied fruit and nuts to represent the jewels in the Magi’s crowns. One tradition explains the round shape of the cake as representing the circuitous route the Magi took to avoid King Herod, who hunted for the Christ child to harm him. There are plenty of recipes for King’s Cake, but you can also use frozen bread or biscuit dough to create a wreath shape or oval braid, or even buy a fruitcake ring from your local grocer.
The King Cake hides surprises. The surprises are only little trinkets; some people include a single (dry) bean or a plastic baby and the one who finds it is “King of the Feast.” Others like to spread the wealth around with other symbolic trinkets. Cautionary remark: enjoying the sugary treat isn’t without its risks, though. If an adult bites into the piece with the baby and becomes King of the Feast, they’re committed to hosting the party next year.
There is an important connection between hospitality and the Epiphany: did not the Magi enjoy the hospitality of the Holy Family? Did not King Herod display a considerable lack of hospitality when he deceived and exploited his guests? As we give and receive hospitality during Christmas and Epiphany, we participate in the story of the Magi and their search for the Christ Child, we celebrate too the joy of Jesus’ appearance, and we find God at a surprisingly familiar place: around the table surrounded by family and friends.
4) Chalk blessing
Another tradition of Epiphany invokes the Magi’s blessing upon the household that hosts the party. Participants typically read a brief, responsive liturgy (included at the end of this article) that includes the biblical account of the Magi’s visit and then “chalk the door” with a series of marks.
What may look like an incomprehensible algebraic formula – “20 + C + M + B + 21” – is actually a rich Epiphany expression steeped in Catholic tradition. The number is the year itself split into two parts and the letters in between stand for the traditional names of the three Wise Men who followed the star: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The letters are also an acronym for the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat,” meaning, “May Christ bless this house.” The “+” signs represent the cross.
Any chalk will do, but be sure it is blessed by a priest. Many parish priests already bless a whole basket of chalk around Epiphany, but if yours doesn’t, you can get your own and ask him to bless it. Warn him ahead of time so he can find the prayers, but he’ll be happy to do it. Once you’re home on the front porch, be sure to mark the doors as a family and remember that the symbols represent a manifestation of your Christian faith and a protection against the powers of evil. Even if you can’t host a party this year, it is good to bless your home in the New Year.
The chalk eventually fades or washes off in the rain, but the acknowledgement of Christ as the King of our household, and the blessings that brings, remain forever.
If you really want to go the extra mile with the Three Kings this Epiphany, here are a few more colourful suggestions.
Act it Out:
The Middle Ages, with its love for pageantry and the picturesque, celebrated the Feast of the Three Kings with much pomp and ceremony. The lives of the Three Wise Men were dramatized, picturing them first as Magi, members of a learned and respected priesthood, then as counsellors of a king, tutors of princes, skilful astrologers, and interpreters of dreams, and finally as kings with their offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
What little was known about them offered fascinating material for dramatization: their call, their wanderings in the desert as they followed the star, their detention by Herod, their adoration of the Christ Child, their return home to Babylon and Persia, and the subsequent conversion of their people to Christianity.
Sing it Out:
Another custom peculiar to this feast and prevalent in Germany and other European countries is “star carolling.” Three young children, colourfully dressed, accompanied by a star-bearer, go singing from house to house. In return for their “star songs” they receive some little recompense. In many localities these young men are altar boys who are thus rewarded in some slight way for their serving at Mass.
Liturgy of the Magi’s Blessing
Peace be with this house and all who dwell in it, and peace to all who enter here.
In keeping the feast of Epiphany, we celebrate the Magi’s search for the infant king, the Christ Child’s appearing to the world, and the peace and hospitality shared between the Magi and the Holy Family.
Let us hear again the Magi’s story:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Matthew 2:1–12
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
(Participants now take turns using the chalk to make part of the Magi’s blessing on the inside lintel of the front door as shown above)
May this home in the coming year be a place where Christ is pleased to dwell.
May all our homes share the peace and hospitality of Christ which is revealed in the fragile flesh of an infant. Amen.
By Tonia Long