What is Epiphany and Why Do We Celebrate It?
In 2020 Epiphany will be celebrated on January 6, a Monday. It always falls on the twelfth night after Christmas Day, December 25th. Here, we look into the history of Epiphany and how it is celebrated by Catholics around the world.
Epiphany is one of those Church celebrations we Catholics look forward to, and yet, rarely talk about. Unlike Christmas Day, which is widely celebrated and extensively prepared for by people of different backgrounds, Epiphany is one holiday which tends to get left out despite its significance in the story of Christ's birth.
Popularly, Epiphany is considered to be the last day of the Christmas season. In some countries, it is deemed bad luck if you take all your Christmas decorations before Epiphany. If you belong to a community that is both religious and superstitious, this might explain why you don't see Christmas decorations getting removed and stored away until after January 5th or 6th.
Historically, however, Epiphany is more than just the day you finally sigh and start getting anxious about going back to school or work. It actually marks the beginning of a 2-day season to Protestants and a religious holiday honoring the Magi for Catholics.
While the word "epiphany" bears Greek roots, it is actually used to describe a very important moment during Christ's birth: it marks the exact moment the Savior was visited by Three Wise Men and revealed to the world. The operative word is "revealed," because in ancient Greek, Epiphany means "revelation."
How It All Began
So, what exactly is Epiphany and why do we celebrate it?
As previously described, we celebrate Epiphany to honor the Three Wise Men who sought Christ to acknowledge His birth, welcome Him with the most expensive gifts of the time, and reveal His coming. Because the holiday is celebrated in honor of the Magi, it has often been called the Twelfth Night (because it occurs 12 nights after Christmas) or Feast of the Three Kings.
While we can all agree this moment in history was very significant, not all Catholic denominations celebrate Epiphany the same way.
For example, in Italy, home of the Vatican and Catholically.com (that's us!), Epiphany takes on a very different form. Known as La Befana, it is a national holiday that celebrates the story of Befana, an old woman who was invited by the the Three Wise Men to see the infant Jesus. Legend says she goes around Italy to visit children on the night of Epiphany. Nice children wake up to nice gifts in their Christmas stockings, while the naughty ones get coal, onion, or other things that aren't too pleasant!
In other countries, Epiphany marks the baptism of Christ instead of His birth, and it is celebrated by jumping into an icy pool, mimicking Jesus' submersion into the Jordan river. It might sound like fun and games, but most countries that celebrate in this manner are mostly found in the Northern Hemisphere, where Epiphany falls on the peak weeks of winter.
For Protestants, Epiphany is a much longer religious season: it begins as a religious event honoring the Three Wise Men and ends on Ash Wednesday. In 2019 Ash Wednesday falls on March 6th.
One Thing We Can All Agree On
Although we all celebrate Epiphany in different ways, there's one thing we can all agree on: were it not for the Three Wise Men, the child Jesus would not have been welcomed into the world with much enjoyment and happiness. On January 6, in the Vatican, Pope Francis will be celebrating Epiphany with a mass, as is custom. If you are in the area, head down to St. Peter's Square this Sunday for Epiphany 2020.