Epiphany and Non-Christmas Holidays Around the Time of Christmas

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20120508-Three wise menMagi_(1).jpg
Three Wise Men
Christmas and Easter are the two major holy days in the Christian calendar. Christmas observes the day of Jesus's birth. Easter recognizes his Resurrection from the dead. Epiphany on January 6 to commemorate Jesus' baptism.

The Christmas period, late November to early January
Advent, the period leading up to Christmas: begins on the Sunday closest to 30 November. Advent is a period of four weeks, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, sometimes observed with fasting and prayer.
Christmas Eve, 24 December
Christmas Day, 25 December
Epiphany, early January
Candlemass is held on February 2, forty days after the birth of Jesus Christ.

Michael J. McClymond wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: In the early fourth century Roman Christians celebrated December 25 as the festival of Jesus' birth and the beginning of the year. This date coincided with the pagan solstice festival of Sol Invictus, yet December 25 may have been selected by adding nine months to March 25, already celebrated as the date of Jesus' conception. Orthodoxy also celebrates Jesus' nativity on December 25. In Eastern Christianity, perhaps as early as the second century, a festival of Epiphany was set on January 6 to commemorate Jesus' baptism and his revelation as a member of the Holy Trinity. In most Latin cultures Epiphany is a time for exchanging gifts, after the example of the Magi. In northern Europe and in English-speaking countries, the exchange of gifts takes place on December 25. Just as Lent prepares for Easter, Advent, usually lasting four weeks, is a season of preparation for Christmas.[Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Websites and Resources on Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christian Denominations: Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org BBC on Baptists bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; BBC on Methodists bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; ; Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org


Epiphany, also called Twelfth Night, commemorates: 1) the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, marking the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry and his revelation as a member of the Holy Trinity; 2) the visit of the Magi (the Three Wise Men); and 3) Jesus’s first miracle at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Epiphany is celebrated by Western Christians on January 6, 12 days after Christmas. Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 18.

Epiphany has traditionally marked the final day of the "Twelve Days of Christmas." In most cases Epiphany is on January 6 and celebrates of the coming of the Magi (the Three Wise Men) and, in Orthodox Christianity, the baptism of Jesus. The word Epiphany come from the Greek word “epi-plainein”, “to show” or “reveal.” Known in many Catholic countries as the “Feast of the Three Kings,” it honors the visit of the Three Kings (the Three Wise Men) to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. It is usually celebrated with processions, plays with the Three Wise Men present gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense to cribs and Twelfth Night cakes, which are blessed at a special mass, symbolize Christ, bread and life. In places that celebrate Epiphany presents are usually exchanged on Epiphany rather than Christmas or Christmas Eve. Epiphany, some scholars believe, evolved out of a pagan winter solstice festival celebrated by the Egyptians and Arabs, and christianized by Gnostic sects around A.D. 120-140.

For Orthodox Christians, Epiphany marks the day that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Describing a celebration of the event in Jericho in the West Bank, AFP reported, “Thousands of Orthodox Christians braved rain on the banks of the Jordan River...to plunge into plastic tubes filled its murky water to celebrate Jesus’s baptism. Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III led a ceremony attended by the faithful from several eastern denominations” and “tossed a cross adorned with flowers into the river and released doves at the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptized...Many followers then immersed themselves in the tubs and poured buckets of water over their heads as Israelis security forces prevented them from approaching the river itself.”

According to the BBC: “The Western Church began celebrating the Epiphany in the 4th century where it was, and still is, associated with the visit of the magi (wise men) to the infant Jesus when God revealed himself to the world through the incarnation of Jesus. According to Matthew 2:11 they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.For many Protestant church traditions, the season of Epiphany extends from 6 January until Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent leading to Easter. Other traditions, including the Roman Catholic tradition, observe Epiphany as a single day, with the Sundays following Epiphany counted as Ordinary Time. In the Spanish speaking world Epiphany is also known as Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day). [Source: October 7, 2011 BBC |::|]

Magi (Three Wise Men)

After the birth of Jesus, teh story goes, the Magi (the Three Wise Men) arrived in the area and asked: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.” They were told by the chief priests of Herod to look in Bethlehem. They followed the star and found Jesus. Their arrival is celebrated with the feast of Epiphany. The Three Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and were warned in a dream not to report anything to Herod and return quietly to where they came from "by another way." In Luke they surrender their ancient powers and strength to Jesus. They said they came from the land of Shir, possibly India or China.

The wise men were given the names Balthazar, Gasper and Melchoir in the 6th century (the Gospels don’t even say how many wise men there were). They are thought to have been Zoroastrians who traveled 1,600 kilometers from Iran, through present-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan to Bethlehem. By one account they are buried in Iran in Saveh (near the Caspian Sea). In another account they lived to the ages of 116, 112 and 109 and their remains are in Cologne, Germany.

Some scholars believe that the wise men were intended to be portrayed as fools rather than wise men. They say that their following a star was intended to be humorous and say that asking Herod for directions to the child was a dumb thing because Herod wanted to kill the child. The point, scholars say, was to show that even the most foolish people can find truth with God.

Festivals at Epiphany in the 4th Century

Egeria, Etheroiua or Aetheria was a woman, widely regarded as the author of Peregrinatio (pilgrimage) – a detailed account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the A.D. 380s — from which this description is from. Scholars believe she is either from Spain or Gaul (France).


Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “1. Night Station at Bethlehem. “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, and the rest which follows. And since, for the sake of the monks who go on foot, it is necessary to walk slowly, the arrival in Jerusalem thus takes place at the hour when one man begins to be able to recognise another, that is, close upon but a little before daybreak. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, users.ox.ac.uk ]

“7. And on arriving there, the bishop and all with him immediately enter the Anastasis, where an exceedingly great number of lights are already burning. There a psalm is said, prayer is made, first the catechumens and then the faithful are blessed by the bishop; then the bishop retires, and every one returns to his lodging to take rest, but the monks remain there until daybreak and recite hymns.

“Morning Services at Jerusalem. “8. But after the people have taken rest, at the beginning of the second hour they all assemble in the greater church, which is in Golgotha. Now it would be superfluous to describe the adornment either of the church, or of the Anastasis, or of the Cross, or in Bethlehem on that day; you see there nothing but gold and gems and silk. For if you look at the veils, they are made wholly of silk striped with gold, and if you look at the curtains, they too are made wholly of silk striped with gold. The church vessels too, of every kind, gold and jewelled, are brought out on that day, and indeed, who could either reckon or describe the number and weight of the cereofala, or of the cicindelae, or of the lucernae, or of the various vessels?

“9. And what shall I say of the decoration of the fabric itself, which Constantine, at his mother's instigation, decorated with gold, mosaic, and costly marbles, as far as the resources of his kingdom allowed him, that is, the greater church as well as the Anastasis, at the Cross, and the other holy places in Jerusalem ?

“10. But to return to the matter in hand: the dismissal takes place on the first day in the greater church, which is in Golgotha, and when they preach or read the several lessons, or recite hymns, all are appropriate to the day. And afterwards when the dismissal from the church has been made, they repair to the Anastasis with hymns, according to custom, so that the dismissal takes place about the sixth hour. 11. And on this day lucernare also takes place according to the daily use.

Epiphany Octave and Mass in the 4th Century

Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “On the second day also they proceed in like manner to the church in Golgotha, and also on the third day; thus the feast is celebrated with all this joyfulness for three days up to the sixth hour in the church built by Constantine. On the fourth day it is celebrated in like manner with similar festal array in Eleona, the very beautiful church which stands on the Mount of Olives; on the fifth day in the Lazarium, which is distant about one thousand five hundred paces from Jerusalem; on the sixth day in Sion, on the seventh day in the Anastasis, and on the eighth day at the Cross. Thus, then, is the feast celebrated with all this joyfulness and festal array throughout the eight days in all the holy places which I have mentioned above. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, users.ox.ac.uk ]

Epiphany celebration

“12. And in Bethlehem also throughout the entire eight days the feast is celebrated with similar festal array and joyfulness daily by the priests and by all the clergy there, and by the monks who are appointed in that place. For from the hour when all return by night to Jerusalem with the bishop, the monks of that place keep vigil in the church in Bethlehem, reciting hymns and antiphons, but it is necessary that the bishop should always keep these days in Jerusalem. And immense crowds, not of monks only, but also of the laity, both men and women, flock together to Jerusalem from every quarter for the solemn and joyous observance of that day.

“XXVI The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honour, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw Him,-- treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which His parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”


Candlemass is held on February 2, forty days after the birth of Jesus Christ. A celebration of light, it commemorates the purification of the Blessed Virgin and presentation of Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. Taking children to the Temple was an old Jewish custom that Jesus’s family followed A blessing of candles, followed by a procession lies at the heart of the Candlemass celebration. Believers who hope to become “children of light” generally carry holy candles with them. These are burnt beside the dead, a sign of hope for eternal life.

According to the BBC: “Candlemas commemorates the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of her son Jesus. This day also marks the ritual presentation of the baby Jesus to God in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was met by Anna and Simeon. Simeon held the baby Jesus and called him a Light to the World. [Source: June 23, 2009 BBC |::|]

Candlemas circumcision

“Ritual purification stems back to a Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean after the birth of a child. For 40 days for a boy, and 60 days for a girl, women weren't allowed to worship in the temple. At the end of this time, women were brought to the Temple or Synagogue to be purified. After the ceremony women were allowed to take part in religious services again. |::|

“The festival is called Candlemas beacuse this was the day that all the Church's candles for the year were blessed. On Candlemas night, many people place lighted candles in their windows at home. Like some other Christian festivals, Candlemas draws some of its elements from Paganism. |::|

“In pre-Christian times, it was the festival of light. This ancient festival marked the mid point of winter, half way between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox. Some people lit candles to scare away evil spirits on the dark winter nights. People believed that Candlemas predicted the weather for the rest of the winter:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won't come again. — Traditional |::|

“For some people, different superstitions surround this festival. For instance, if a candle drips on one side when carried in church on Candlemas, this denotes a death of a family member during the year. If someone brings snowdrops into the house on Candlemas day it symbolises a parting or death. Any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 5th) should be left up until Candlemas Day and then taken down.” |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Encyclopedia.com, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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