Sometimes it’s hard to know when Christmas is over. The advertisers certainly waste no time switching from hawking Christmas gifts to promoting New Year’s specials. It takes me a little bit longer. I yearn for just a few more days of magic. I know that eventually we need to stop playing Christmas carols, attempt to stuff our tree back into the box in the garage, and eat one last guilt-free cookie, but does it have to be on December 26? On the other hand, I’d rather not let the holidays slowly fizzle out, gloomily dissolving into months of winter, winter, and more winter. For years, I wished for some definitive event to put a firm period at the end of the season. Then I discovered Epiphany.
Epiphany goes by a number of different names, including Theophany, Twelfth Night, and Three Kings’ Day. Most traditions place Epiphany on January 6, the last of the 12 days of Christmas, although a few eastern churches, mainly Greek Orthodox, follow an older calendar and celebrate on January 19 (while observing Christmas Day on January 6).
By convention, this is the day the magi (or kings, or wise men) are said to have visited the Christ child. Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly how many kings there were; the number three mostly likely comes from the three gifts what were offered—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—and it is now permanently stuck in our minds because of the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
Epiphany is celebrated in different ways around the world. The term epiphany means “to show,” “to make known,” or “to reveal.” At Christmas, God revealed Himself to mankind. And because the magi revealed the Christ to the gentiles, some protestant churches give this day a special missions emphasis. It’s also a common day for baptisms, church services, and the blessing of homes.
In some Hispanic cultures this is the time that Christmas presents are opened. That seems quite appropriate to me, as the magi gave the first Christmas presents, and it would be great to take advantage of all those after Christmas sales, but imagine having to wait two more weeks to see what is in those boxes!
In Catholic parts of India, King’s Day is celebrated with processions and festivals. Three boys are selected to represent the three kings, and are dressed in elaborate, jeweled robes and paraded to the church on horses. It is a great honor to be chosen.
Celebrants in Britain burn yule logs and sip wassail (hot mulled cider). In parts of Europe, trios of children (representing the three kings) go from house to house, where they receive coins or candy in return for songs or skits. The Finns eat gingerbread stars, broken into three pieces. Some cultures, such as in Egypt, fast on this holy day, while other cultures celebrate with feasting and special cakes. These cakes take different forms in different cultures, but all symbolize the visit of the kings.
The New Orleans King Cake originally came from Spain and France. This oval cake is traditionally made from a cinnamon yeast dough and covered with lots of purple, green, and gold sugar, as you can see.
Historically, a King Cake was served at a ball on January 6, marking the beginning of festival, or Mardi Gras. Baked into the cake was a bean; later coins, rings, or pecans were used. The lucky person who found the prize in their serving was crowned king or queen of the ball. Sometime in the 1940s, a creative salesman sold an overstock of figurines to a New Orleans bakery and now small plastic or porcelain babies are standard. Some people choose to believe that the baby figures represents Jesus, although that wasn’t the original intent. In any case, the current custom is for the one who finds the baby to either host the next party or supply the next king’s cake.
Here in Colorado, our neighboring town of Manitou Springs has its own end-of-holiday tradition—the annual Fruitcake Toss. Locals and visitors dress up in jester or clown costumes (or layers of insulation, depending on the weather) and see how far they can propel a stale, leftover fruitcake. Prizes are awarded for distance, accuracy, team competitions, and other events. In hopes of earning prizes and bragging rights, some enthusiasts design elaborate catapults or other machines. Past years have also included a fruitcake costume competition, libations and a fruitcake bake off.
Pete and I skip the King Cake, and we opened our presents on Christmas Day, but we still like to consider Epiphany the formal end of the holiday season. That’s the date when we take down the tree, pack up the decorations, and put the house back to what passes for normal—and perhaps go toss a fruitcake or two. Christmas is over for another year, but remember—Christ is with us always.