The celebration of Twelfth Night and Epiphany is one of our oldest celebrations in the church. It is even older than the celebration of Christmas Day! The celebration originated in Egypt in the 3rd century and is the last vestige of an ancient Christian celebration called Smoke Nights. Every night, beginning on Christmas Eve and lasting for twelve nights, Christians celebrated these nights by going through their homes and barns, burning incense, and blessing their homesteads. There is only one of these nights left now and it is called Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night or Eve of the Epiphany begins at sundown and is the beginning of the celebration of Epiphany. On this day, we celebrate the wise men's long journey and their meeting with the child Jesus.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, looking for the one born to be the King of the Jews. They were led by a bright and unusual star in the sky that they knew signified the birth of a mighty king. They brought with them gifts worthy of a king and traveled for quite some time until they arrived in arrived at King Herod's palace seeking the "one who had been born king of the Jews." Herod was greatly troubled by what the Wise Men said. He assembled the chief priests and teachers of the law to tell them where this child would be. They searched the scriptures and answered that the child would be found in Bethlehem.
Herod called the Wise Men to him and gave them the location. He asked that as soon as they found the child, they would report back to him so that he might come and worship him as well.
The Wise Men were led to a humble home where Jesus lived with Mary and Joseph. When they arrived at the home they rejoiced with “exceedingly great joy." They went into the home, saw the young child, and fell down and worshipped Him. Then they presented the child with their treasures; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The church recognizes this beautiful moment as an epiphany. An epiphany is a revelation that happens suddenly and reveals something’s true nature or meaning. It was in this moment that God’s plan for salvation through Jesus was revealed to the world beyond the Jews. Through the wise men’s visit we see that through Jesus, God’s plan of salvation is meant for everyone.
Although Twelfth Night and Epiphany is not celebrated much in the United States, it is a major holiday in other countries around the world. There is feasting and parades through the streets. Men dressed as Wise Men can be seen parading down the streets and Wise Men figures are placed at town nativity scenes. This is the last great feast in the Christmas cycle and it is wonderfully celebrated.
The Blessing of the Home
After the evening meal, it is traditional in many countries for the family to follow the father through the house and farm. The father goes from room to room burning incense. He is followed by another member of the family who carries a bowl filled with holy water and sprinkles the holy water freely throughout every room of the house. The rest of the family processes behind them carrying a star affixed to a branch or pole and the wise men from the creche. They sing hymns to mark the event like “We Three Kings of Orient Are." They then make their way to the last room of the house where the nativity scene is. They place the kings around baby Jesus lying in the manger. After the adoration of baby Jesus, the family writes the initials C, M, and B in chalk above their front door. The initials stand for the names of the wise men: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and also "Christ, bless this house" in Latin (Christus mansionem benedicat). The initials are then surrounded by the current year and separated by crosses (20+C+M+B+24).
Singing Door to Door
In Austria and Germany, Star Singers would go and visit the houses in their area. The Star Singers represented the three Wise Men and they carried decorated boxes representing the three gifts that the Wise Men gave to Jesus. The Star Singers would move from house to house singing carols. They would also collect money which would then be given to the poor. The Star Singers were led by a person carrying a large star hanging from a pole or stick.
As recently as the 1950s, the people in Great Britain celebrated with a night of wassailing. Wassailers, like carol singers, go from house to house singing and wishing their neighbors good health. They would all celebrate with a drink called Lamb’s Wool which is made of cider or ale along with roasted apples, sugar, and spices.
In many cultures, children believe that the Magi come to them and bring gifts just as they did to Jesus. In the days leading up to Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day, children write letters to the three kings asking for a toy or gift. The children leave their shoes the night before Epiphany. They add some hay to their shoes for the Wise Men’s animals to eat. When the children wake up in the morning, gifts appear in place of the hay.
For the Feast of the Epiphany, there are incredible food traditions worldwide.
In Ukraine, people celebrate by making a traditional meal of kutya which is wheat berry and dried fruit soup, vareniki dumplings, and borscht.
When Poland was under communist rule the celebration of Epiphany was almost nonexistent but now big cities like Warsaw and Krakow have brought back the traditions. They have an Epiphany parade and they eat szczodraki which are little pastries made either sweet or savory by the filling. The celebration is always linked to the harvest so if the year has been good, the szczodraki will be large and generously filled; if it has been a bad year, they will be made small and without any filling at all.
In England, they serve a Twelfth Night Cake which is a fruit cake with a gold paper crown wrapped around the outside.
The French serve the Galette des Rois. In northern France, it is a pastry filled with frangipane, fruit or chocolate. In southern France, it is a brioche filled with candied fruits.
In Spain everyone gets together for a huge feast. They start with tapas and then eat a dinner of slow roast lamb and finish with the Rosca de Reyes cake.
In Mexico they drink hot chocolate or atole (a warm, thick, grain-based drink) and eat Rosca de Reyes as well. Rosca de Reyes is a sweet bread shaped like a wreath, with candied fruit on top and a figurine of a baby Jesus baked inside. The person who finds the figurine is expected to host a party on Dia de la Candelaria or Candlemas which is celebrated on February 2nd.
Ways to Celebrate
Read Matthew 2:1-12.
Sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are”. As you sing, bring your nativity wise men and place them around baby Jesus lying in the manger.
After the adoration of baby Jesus, go to your front door and write the initials C, M, and B in chalk along the top of your door. The initials are said to stand for the names of the wise men: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, or “Christ, bless this house” in Latin (Christus mansionem benedicat). The initials are then surrounded by the current year and separated by crosses (20+C+M+B+23).
Make a Twelfth Night Cake (King Cake, Galette de Rois, or Rosca de Reyes). Depending on the country, it is a simple cake with a dried bean inside. Whoever finds the bean in their cake is crowned king or queen for the night and might also have duties assigned to them at a later celebration.
Have your children leave out their shoes and fill them with little toys or candy while they sleep.