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Epiphany History and Traditions

The Epiphany celebration marks the day the three Wise Men visited baby Jesus Christ, and remains an important event in the Christian calendar. Throughout the world, many different Christian cultures hold Epiphany celebrations to commemorate this day. Celebrations typically include feasting, gift giving and caroling, and mark the end of the Christmas season's festivities.

History of the Epiphany Celebration

The Epiphany is the day Christians believe the three wise men commemorated the birth of Jesus Christ with feasting and presents. It is also said to be the day that Christ's baptism took place, and is the day of his revelation to the Gentiles.' According to the Gregorian calendar, the Epiphany celebration falls on January 6th.

Epiphany also marks the day after the twelfth day of Christmas (which falls on January 5th), and is usually the final celebration of the Christmas holiday. The twelve days of Christmas begin with Jesus' birth on Christmas Day and end with the Epiphany. The only exception to this is for Eastern churches who follow the Julian Calendar, in which Epiphany occurs on January 19th.

Interestingly, many Americans mistakenly believe the twelve days of Christmas start on December 14th since fewer and fewer modern families still celebrate the Epiphany. However, the twelve days of Christmas are still celebrated throughout Europe (including England) and in Latin American countries, who observe Epiphany as an important holiday and have rich traditions associated with its celebration.

The Tradition of an Epiphany Feast

The easiest Epiphany tradition to incorporate into your family's Christmas festivities is the Epiphany feast. Being the last day of the Christmas celebration, the most common tradition throughout different cultures is to have a large feast to honor the Epiphany.

Many cultures believe it is bad luck to keep Christmas decorations up past Epiphany, so plan an afternoon of family time spent taking down the Christmas decorations, and treat everyone to a delicious Epiphany feast once everything is put away for the year. It's the perfect way to sweeten the chore of taking down decorations and a great way to kick off the new year.

Another fun Epiphany tradition to try is to go around the table during dinner and share resolutions and hopes for the New Year with family and friends. Looking forward will get everyone excited for the year ahead, and starts the new year off on a positive note.

Epiphany Tradition of the King's Cake

A common thread in Epiphany celebrations is baking a "King's Cake," which is a cake that has a small doll or trinket inside of it. King's Cake is commonly baked in France, Puerto Rico, Spain, Mexico and the United States. Once the cake is served, whoever finds the trinket becomes king for the day. Alternately, in some families, whoever finds the trinket is responsible for baking next year's cake.

The King's Cake Epiphany tradition mirrors that of the Mardi Gras King's Cake. For more details on the Mardi Gras version, as well as delicious recipes to try, see our article on Mardi Gras King's Cake.

Yule log cakes, a traditional symbol for Christmas, are also incorporated into Epiphany celebrations. Families often begin eating the Yule log cake on Christmas, and continue having a piece each day until the twelfth day of Christmas, finishing the Yule log on Epiphany.

Epiphany Gift Giving Traditions

Epiphany gift giving also varies among different cultures. Some open all presents on the first day of Christmas (December 25th), while others stagger gift opening throughout the twelve days of Christmas, and yet others wait until Epiphany to open all their presents, since it marks the day the Magi came bearings gifts for Jesus.

Spreading out the gift giving throughout the twelve days of Christmas is a great way to extend the excitement of Christmas Day for your family. We suggest opening one present on Christmas Day, then one on each of the following twelve days of Christmas with the remainder opened during Epiphany celebrations.

Or, if you have children who won't hear of waiting until January 6th to tear into their gifts, give each family member a special sweet treat on each of the twelve days with a big dessert for the Epiphany celebration.

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Meet our Writer
Jennifer Geddes
Celebrations Writer

Jennifer Kelly Geddes has hosted Christmas cookie swaps, New Year's open houses, Thanksgiving for 22, and all manner of dinner parties in her Manhattan and Ghent, NY homes.

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