Twelfth Night – Epiphany


Tomorrow is Epiphany also known as Twelfth Night (note: in some places the official Church celebration of Epiphany is held on the first Sunday after New Year’s Day but January 6th remains the actual date for Epiphany).  It is the conclusion of the Christmas season.  For many in North America, it is a little known holiday but for some European countries this is the date when they have their gift giving celebration, reserving Christmas as a completely religious holiday.  Epiphany is the date the church commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men to see and present gifts to the child Jesus.  It is known as Twelfth Night as well because it is the 12th day of Christmas (as noted in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas – the first day being Christmas itself).  See my prior post on The Twelve Days of Christmas for more information about this:

three kings from Secret Tenerife (Flickr)

In my home, we extended the Christmas celebrations throughout the 12 days, culminating at Epiphany.  On Epiphany, my daughter would receive 3 small gifts – one for each of the traditional Wise Men (theologians tell us that the idea that there were 3 Wise Men is a misconception.  It doesn’t say give a number in the Bible, nor does it give them the names we have come to accept).  This was also the day that we added our 3 Wise Men figurines to the nativity scene in our home (they have been present in the room – moved closer and closer each day throughout the season), bringing it to its completion.  Finally, it has traditionally been the time when we would “untrim” the tree and put away our holiday decorations. 

There are other traditions associated with the celebration of Epiphany which we engaged in at our home and in my classroom, many of them I know of because they are practiced in some regions in the Catholic church.  We always hung a stocking with ours that was labelled for Jesus and throughout the Christmas season, we would write notes about qualities within ourselves that we wished to rid ourselves of with Jesus’ help or gifts of ourselves that we would like to give Jesus.  At Epiphany, we would take those notes out of the stocking – the ones that contained gifts for Jesus, we would place into three small boxes and wrap them with beautiful paper and ribbons to be laid at Jesus’ feet at the nativity scene.  The ones that contained the qualities we would like to rid ourselves of, we would burn as a ceremonial way of releasing them into God’s hands.  (These were much like making the typical New Year’s resolutions in a sense and if we hadn’t made out any up until that point, we would often sit down and write these out on New Year’s Eve as a way of saying goodbye to the previous year and to those sins). 

In Belgium, children (and often their families) would dress up as the Three Kings and go from house to house singing songs and receiving treats from the occupants.  This could be mimicked in your home with your children dressing up and going from room to room singing.  An appropriate song of choice would of course be “We Three Kings”. 

three kings children by didbygraham's(flickr)

Another tradition is to have a piece of chalk blessed by our priest.  (The book “The Book of Catholic Customs and Traditions by Ronda De Sola Chervin and Carla Conley offers a short chalk blessing ceremony for those who can’t find a priest who can bless it for them.) On Twelfth Night, we would mark the door frame above the door with the year and the initials C, M, B (the most common explanation for these letters is that they stand for Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar…according to, they say there is an alternate meaning for them in Christus Mansionem Benedicat which means May Christ bless this house. These were written in the following form:  The first two numbers of the year, then C+M+B, then the last two numbers of the year.  For example, for 2010, it would be “20+C+M+B+10”.  After marking each doorway leading to the outdoors, we would sprinkle holy water on the door and recite a prayer asking for blessings and protection on our home.  This link will take you to a page that has a blessing that can be used in conjunction with the chalk ceremony or you can make up your own.

An Epiphany cake (also known as Twelfth Cake or King’s Cake) is another traditional part of the celebration.  It can be nice to use one of those tube shaped cake pans (or a Bundt pan) to resemble a crown.  The book “A Treasure Chest of Traditions for Catholic Families” by Monica McConkey suggests using small candies placed all over the cake to represent the jewels of the crown and wafer cookies that have been cut into triangles to represent the peaks of the crown.  I used to use the pointy ice cream cones that I decorated with icing as the peaks.  As per tradition, a King’s Cake is baked with items in it to represent various things.  A small statue of Jesus, a dried pea, and a dried bean were all baked into it and those who received the piece with any of these items in it, were deemed to receive special honours.  The ones who receive the pea or bean are designated as King and Queen of the celebration and were usually given paper crowns to wear and special decorated chairs to sit in.  Sometimes they would then be given the honour of leading a parade around and up to the nativity scene.  (Note: either the cake was marked so that they knew which side had the pea – the designation for the Queen and which side had the bean – the designation for the King or two separate cakes were baked for each gender).  The person who found the Christ statue would be deemed as the recipient of a special blessing from God for the coming year.  Some people also added other “charms’ to represent and foretell additional events in the future:  for example, a ring that would indicate an impending marriage for the recipient, a coin that signified coming wealth, and so on.  Others would write little fortunes (much like in fortune cookies) or wishes for the future, prayers or blessings and wrap them in aluminum foil and bake those into the cake as well.  Note: if you are going to bake such a cake for your celebration please be sure to warn your guests that there are items within it.  Help small children to “dig through” their pieces prior to eating them to ensure that the items baked within have been found so that there is no risk of choking. 

In Mexico, the King’s Cake was a fruitcake and had some lima beans and a Christ statue baked in it.  The tradition was that the children who received a lima bean had been “bad” throughout the previous year and the child who got the Christ statue had been the “best behaved”.  The recipient of the Christ statue was supposed to then throw a party for everyone else on the Feast of Candelmas, February 2nd.  Another Mexican tradition was that the children would leave their shoes outside the door on Epiphany Eve.  In the morning they would check their shoes.  If they had been “bad”, their shoes would have coal in them, but if they had been good, they would find gifts instead.  This is reminiscent of a similar practice by Dutch and other European children on St. Nicholas Eve.  Personally, I would never engage in any activity that labels children as “bad”. 

In Greece, it is traditional on Epiphany for the priest to lead a procession out to the seaside where he would throw a cross into the waters.  Young people would dive in after it and the one who found it again would be considered to be the recipient of future gifts and blessings.  Some people re-enact this tradition by such means as attaching a magnet to a cross and placing it in a bin of water (or the bathtub or something similar) and using makeshift fishing poles (string attached to a stick with something like a large metal paper clip on the end of it) to allow their children to go “fishing” for the cross. offers more suggestions for effective and meaningful Epiphany celebrations at home.  They also have a book available that I highly recommend on Christmas and Epiphany which outlines wonderful ways of ensuring that the true meaning of Christ’s birthday remains central to family celebrations.  The site has ideas for additional spiritual activities as well as colouring pages for children and Epiphany crossword puzzles for older kids.

Note: I realize that most of the references I have given are from Catholic publications.  That does not mean that other Christians cannot benefit from these ideas.  Simply adapt them to suit your beliefs and preferences.


4 responses to “Twelfth Night – Epiphany

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Cyn. It’s very interesting. I’m not religious myself but I’m always happy to learn about other people’s customs and celebrations. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. This is very informative. Thanks.

  3. Wow! I had no idea! Very informative. Madi Gras celebrations in New Orleans also include a King Cake. I was blessed to have the piece with the baby Jesus the one time I celebrated Madi Gras.

  4. yes they do! I forgot to mention that. The King’s Cake in many places begins its appearance at Epiphany and is continued until Mardi Gras since it’s the last day before Lent begins. Many of the colours symbolic of Mardi Gras are also associated with Epiphany and the Three Kings.

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