Do we have an Epiphany?

Epiphany painting 
Adoration of the Magi by El Greco, 1568, Museo Soumaya, Mexico City

Adoration of the Magi
 by El Greco, 1568, Museo SoumayaMexico City

A time of reflection

The Christmas period and Epiphany for me is always a time for reflection. Raised as a Catholic, and as a child refugee, for me the story of the Holy couple and their baby having to flee and look for sanctuary always had special meaning.

Since we fled from Hungary on 21 December, I am always reminded of having slept on the floor of various refugee camps as a child. Christmas 1956 was not one of those cosy days in front of a fireplace.

Our family always kept to our Catholic European tradition of celebrating Christmas Eve, when it was the baby Jesus who would bring the presents as a sign of the salvation of humanity. A festival of love and togetherness.

This Christmas in the UK, I was upset to see this tweet:

Epiphany on 6 January was for me the sad day when our Christmas tree was taken down, and the festive season was really over. But, at the same time, I was fascinated by the story of the Three Magi. The Bible which my great grandmother kept under her mattress, as religion was strictly banned in USSR-ruled Hungary, had beautiful coloured pictures I loved to look at. 

Why is Epiphany on 6 January? 

Traditionally, the Epiphany was a pagan celebration of light. It started on 21 December during the Winter Solstice, when the night is the longest of the year. The early church and Christian missionaries utilised existing Pagan festivals of Saturnalia in Roman-influenced communities, and Yule among the Germans, to celebrate the birth of Christ. This Christian festival starting on 25 December lasts 12 days and 12 nights, representing the 12 months of the year, the 12 hours of a day, and the 12 apostles of Christ. The Epiphany is the culmination of this.

The Magi’s visit to Jesus was arbitrarily set to have taken place on 6 January. Up to the Middle Ages, they were depicted as astronomers and only later were they promoted to kings.

Epiphany in art

The Adoration of the Magi has inspired numerous beautiful paintings. They are presented as kings from far away lands who followed a star. They came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This description of the Magi, the three kings or wise men have always given artists plenty of scope to depict them followed by pages, servants, soldiers, and pack animals. Dressed in magnificent outfits, they carry ornate urns, vessels, and boxes as they make their way across deserts and over mountains guided by a bright star. 

Although the Gospel of Matthew does not give individual names to this regal trio, we know them as Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior, thanks to a Greek manuscript from AD500. A text by the Venerable Bede, the historian monk from Northumbria, makes Balthasar black

Balthasar in a detail from The Adoration of the Magi, 1510, by Hieronymus Bosch
Balthasar in a detail from The Adoration of the Magi, 1510, by Hieronymus Bosch. Photograph: DEA/G Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images

Balthasar is black

This painting was especially fascinating for my 3-4 year old self. I think seeing those paintings, in a country cut off from the world by a Communist authoritarian regime, might have been the first time I was made aware that some people are not white.

I had seen gypsies, a large minority in Hungary, who come from Southern India. But I had never seen a black man before. My mother told me of a far away land of constant hot sunshine which made people get a permanent tan.

Before 1400, there were very few paintings of a black Balthasar, because medieval Europeans had so little concept of Africa. However, at the dawning of the Renaissance Balthasar’s colour began to be emphatically depicted. In fact, the trumpeting, joyous festive subject of “the adoration” inspired some of the richest portrayals of black people in European art.

In the Bible, Matthew 2:1

The visit by the Three Kings is described in detail:

“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 path.”

This last sentence hints at the political background of the period when Jesus was born: prosecution of Jews making the holy couple flee to seek sanctuary. And the threat to the three wise men, migrants from far away bearing gifts. 

Three Kings Day in the UK

The Three Kings Day is not a bank holiday in Great Britain, but some people do go to church. Sometimes people organise parties, on which people serve a special Twelfth Night cake. A dry seed of bean and pea are put into the cake. The person who finds a seed in their piece become the King and Queen of the evening.

On 6 January all Christmas decorations should be taken down as British people, like the Irish, believe that keeping them up brings bad luck.

Epiphany Day in Europe

Epiphany Day in Spain is one of the most popular Christian holidays in the country. It is a bank holiday and children receive gifts. SpanishPod describes Epiphany in their blog post:  

“During the late evening, in many towns and cities, the Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos, or ‘Magic Kings Parade’, makes its way through the streets. The parade of carriages allows both children and adults in costumes to participate. The most important carriages are always the ones in which we see the three wise men. Sweets and even some small toys are thrown into the streets. Children and others who are not so young try to grab as much as they can.

Here is a video (in Spanish with subtitles) showing the abundance and enthusiasm for the colourful tradition:


Three wise men bearing gifts

The parade of the three wise men in Granada is the oldest Epiphany parade in Spain. The tradition dates back 100 years, and people give out a total of ten tonnes of confectionary during the parade.

On 6 January people eat the yeast-cake in the shape of a ring. The cake is called ‘Roscón de Reyes’. Depending on the region, the cake contains a bean seed and/or a ceramic figure of the King. Then the cake is cut into equal size pieces; the person who finds the bean has to pay for the next Roscón de Reyes. The person who finds the figure becomes the King for the whole day.

Once the parades are over, the children return home and go to bed early. They know that if the three wise men see that the child is awake, they won’t leave any gifts. Also, they prepare something to drink and eat for the three wise men. They must be tired after the long trip. It’s also good to leave some water for the camels. And after a night where many children can barely get any sleep because of the anticipation of the presents the Kings brought them. 

Epiphany in Austria and Germany

Merkel with Sternsingers on Three Kings Day
Merkel with Sternsingers on Three Kings Day, Photo by the Bundeskanzleramt

According to The German Way website:

“In Austria and in Catholic regions of Germany and Switzerland, Epiphany is also the date when people (including Sternsinger, ie star singers) finish carrying out the traditional ‘C+M+B’ house-blessing ceremony, with an inscription on or above the door. The inscription below (for 2008 in Bavaria) is in the standard format used in Germany, although there are regional variations.

“The three letters in the inscription stand for the names of the three Wise Men (Magi): Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar (German spelling). However, ‘C+M+B; could stand for the Latin phrase: Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates into ‘Christ bless this house.’ The inscription is usually made with consecrated chalk as that was considered to ward off evil spirits.”

France’s Galette des Rois

According to French Moments:

In France, the tradition says that every family, on  the day of Epiphany, elects a king. Each family buys a round cake, called ‘Galette des Rois’. In each cake there is a little plastic figure (in luxury cakes it may be jewellery or even a car-key). Then the family cuts the cake into as many pieces as the family includes. Each family member eats their piece and looks for the figure. The person who finds the figure becomes the king and wears a crown made from paper until the end of the day. This day is celebrated by Christians and atheists alike, because this is  now a secular tradition. In Belgium, the ‘Galette des Rois’ is also well known.”

Epiphany in France with Galette des Rois
Galette de Rois, photo from unknown source 

In Provence and the South of France, Brioche des Rois has candied fruit on it which replaces the Galette. As for the 6 January date of the tasting of the ‘Galette’, nowadays this is deferred to the nearest Sunday to 6 January, when people are not at work and thus the whole family can be gathered around for the event.

In  Italy it’s Befana

Painting by James Lewicki, from “The Golden Book of Christmas Tales” 1956

Painting by James Lewicki, from “The Golden Book of Christmas Tales” 1956

In Italy, the legend says Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar met an old lady during their journey and asked her to join them. The lady refused. Next day, she began to regret that she didn’t go with them and decided to catch up with them.

It was too late, however. The Three Kings were too far away, the star of Bethlehem faded and she had never seen the baby Jesus. Since then, on the night between 5 and 6 January she leaves gifts in every house where a baby sleeps, in case it is Jesus.

Befana, an old lady with a big, rounded nose flies on a broom with a bag of gifts. Good children are rewarded with gifts and naughty ones receive a piece of coal. The piece of coal is the equivalent of a birch-rod. 

Hungary and Three Kings Day

Apart from during the Communist years, Hungary, as a Roman Catholic country, has been celebrating the visit of the three Kings with ceremonies using consecrated water.

In the liturgical calendar, just after Epiphany, the following Sunday is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. On the intervening weekday, the Church commemorates Jesus’ first miracle, in which he turned water into wine.

In Hungary Three Kings Day is also called vízkereszt, literally water cross. Epiphany is a prominent holiday in the Catholic Church because it is the beginning of the period when the house consecration begins. During this ritual the priest sprinkles flats and houses with consecrated Holy Water, blessing its inhabitants. Like in Germany and Austria, an inscription marking this blessing is made at the entrance door.

Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings, the twelfth day of Christmas is also when the carnival season kicks off, which ends before the liturgical season of Lent, on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, a period of fasting begins.

photo of carnival
Free photo of carnival by pixabay, no. 268481.