Epiphany: The History of Epiphany
Early Christians were celebrating Epiphany before they began to observe Christmas. The first celebrations of Epiphany occurred in second-century EGYPT. Like Christmas, the date chosen for Epiphany has no firm historical or scriptural grounding. Some scholars believe that January 6 was selected by the earliest celebrants in order to upstage a WINTER SOLSTICE festival held in honor of an Egyptian sun god on that date. Indeed, according to one ancient Egyptian calendar, winter solstice fell on January 6. Some ancient Egyptians recognized that day as the birthday of the Egyptian god Osiris. Other sacred events held on that day include a festival commemorating the birth of the god Aeon from his virgin mother, Kore.
From the second century onward, scattered celebrations of Epiphany occurred among various groups of Christians, although no consensus emerged as to what events the holiday commemorated. Christian liturgy identifies four instances in which Jesus’ divine nature manifested itself on earth: at his birth, at the adoration of the Magi, at his baptism, and when he changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Early Epiphany celebrations honored any one or more of these events. By the third century most Eastern Christians were celebrating Epiphany. By the late fourth century most Western Christians had also adopted the feast. Eastern and Western celebrations evolved around different themes, however. When the Western Church designated DECEMBER 25 as the Feast of the Nativity in the mid-fourth century, Western Epiphany celebrations consolidated around the revelation of Jesus’ divinity to the Magi. When the Eastern Church embraced Christmas, between 380 and 430 A.D., Christmas absorbed the celebration of both the Nativity and the adoration of the Magi. Thus, Eastern Epiphany observances remained dedicated to the commemoration of Jesus’baptism.
In the Middle Ages, popular western European Epiphany celebra-tions focused on the Magi’s journey. People began to refer to the Magi as kings and saints and to Epiphany as the "Feast of the Three Kings.” Festivities of the day included NATIVITY PLAYS, many of which featured the story of the Three Kings. Another boisterous medieval ceremony, was also sometimes performed in churches on Epiphany.
In 1336 the city of Milan, ITALY, hosted a splendid procession and play to commemorate the Feast of the Three Kings. Three men, sumptu-ously dressed as kings and surrounded by an entire retinue of costumed pages, body guards, and attendants, paraded through the city streets following a gold star which hung before them (see also STAR OF BETHLEHEM). At one juncture, they encountered King HEROD and his scribes. The Wise Men asked where Jesus was to be born, and King Herod, after consulting the scribes, answered "BETHLEHEM.” The kings and their followers continued on to St. Eustorgius Church, bearing their gifts of GOLD, FRANKINCENSE, and MYRRH ceremoniously before them. The crowd spilled into the church, preceded by trumpeters, horn players, donkeys, apes, and other animals. To one side of the high altar awaited MARY and the Christ child, in a manger complete with ox and ass. Although we might consider this noisy and colorful Epiphany celebration unseemly, medieval Europeans enjoyed this mixture of ceremony, carnival, and religion.
In Spanish-speaking countries today, Epiphany retains this strong association with the Magi and is called Día de los Tres Reyes, or Three Kings Day. The French call the holiday Le Jour de Rois or Fête des Rois: Kings’Day or the Feast of the Kings (see also CHRISTMAS IN FRANCE). The British sometimes refer to the holiday as Twelfth Day, and the evening before as TWELFTH NIGHT, since it occurs twelve days after Christmas. Twelfth Day marks the end of the Christmas season, also known as Twelfthtide or the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. Since late medieval times the British had enjoyed feasts and masquerades on Twelfth Night, but these celebrations have declined since the nineteenth century.