Why Epiphany marks the end of Christmas for many believers

Also known as Three Kings’ Day or Theophany, the holiday falls on the last of the 12 days of Christmas. Here’s what it is and how we celebrate it.

After the 12th day of Christmas, believers take down their festive decor. But they don't let January 6—or January 19 for many Orthodox Christians who still abide by the Julian calendar—pass by without another Christmas-connected celebration.

Tied to biblical accounts of Jesus Christ's birth and baptism, the holiday of Epiphany is a chance for Christians to reflect on the nature of God's physical manifestation on Earth and pay homage to three important visitors in the biblical account of Jesus' birth.

The holiday falls during the Christmas season. But opinions differ on when that season actually ends: Christmas is observed both as one day, a 12-day period that ends on Epiphany, or an even longer season that lasts until Candlemas, a holiday that celebrates Jesus Christ’s presentation at the temple and which is usually celebrated by Christians on February 2.

(How Christmas has evolved over centuries.)

Today, Epiphany is celebrated differently by various Christian denominations. Here's what to know about Epiphany—also called Theophany or simply Three Kings' Day.

Origins of Epiphany

Though it's known by different names in different cultures and countries, Epiphany has its origins in the Christian church's belief that Jesus Christ was the human incarnation of God.

The first known references to the Christian ritual suggest it was common by the fourth century A.D. In the 200s, theologian Clement of Alexandria wrote that a sect of Syrian Gnostic Christians, the Basilidians, celebrated Christ's baptism in January. By 361, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that Christians called that January festival Epiphany.

It took its name from the Greek word ἐπῐφᾰ́νειᾰ / epipháneia, which refers to a deity's physical manifestation or revelation to mortals.

How Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany

In the Orthodox Church, the holiday is known as Theophany and commemorates Christ's baptism. After fasting, Orthodox Christians attend a church ceremony where a priest blesses water, then uses it to bless the congregation. They then take holy water home and use it to bless themselves and their homes all year long.

(Why Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in January.)

Orthodox Christians believe that all water is sanctified on Theophany, and in Eastern Europe many take icy dips in lakes in a bid to wash away their sins.

How non-Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany

Among Catholics and other non-Orthodox Christians, Epiphany focuses on another important event in Christ’s life: the arrival of the Magi, three wise men from the East sometimes characterized as kings. The gospels give different accounts of the Magi's visit to Bethlehem.

The Gospel of Matthew recounts the story of Herod I, whom Rome had appointed the king of Judea or "king of the Jews," and his suspicions of the prophesied birth of a new king of the Jews. When the Magi spoke of their plan to follow a star that would lead them to the child, the Gospel writes, Herod attempted to use them as scouts who could lead him to his rival.

(Who were the three kings in the Christmas story?)

But when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, they worshiped the infant Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Since they were not Jewish, the fact that the Magi saw Jesus as worthy of worship is considered proof that the baby was God's manifestation on Earth—central to the idea of epiphany.

After finding and worshiping Jesus, the Magi left by another road rather than disclose his location and endanger the child. Furious, Herod ordered the execution of all male children aged two and below in the Bethlehem area, an event now known as the Massacre or Slaughter of the Innocents.

Epiphany traditions around the world

The Magi's gifts—and their rumored royal status—gave rise to a variety of colorful customs in nations where Epiphany is commonly observed. In France, the holiday is traditionally celebrated with galette des rois, or king cake. The round cake is layered with frangipane, a sweet almond paste, and connoisseurs check their slice to see if it has a bean baked into it. The recipient of the bean is crowned "king" for a day.

In the United States, Epiphany kicks off the Carnival season. Throughout Carnival, people eat yellow, green, and white-frosted king cakes that, instead of a bean, contain a figure of a baby thought to represent the baby Jesus. Though the cakes are particularly popular in Louisiana, whose state capital New Orleans is known for its Mardi Gras celebrations, it can be found nationwide.

(These are the 7 secrets to celebrating Mardi Gras like an insider.)

In Latin America, people bake rosca de reyes (bread of kings), a sweet bread baked into a crown-like circle. Though traditions vary slightly throughout the region, some children put out grass and water the night before Epiphany for the animals who accompanied the three kings and receive gifts from the kings the next morning for their good behavior.

Other customs are just as fanciful: In Italy, for example, Epiphany is also known as Befana, a folk festival that celebrates the legend of an old woman or witch who went by that name. As the story has it, la Befana sheltered the Magi on their way to Bethlehem. After the wise men left, she decided to follow them in search of the baby Jesus. As she searches, the kindly old woman brings gifts to well-behaved children across Italy—a tradition similar to Santa Claus.

Another travel-themed tradition practiced throughout Europe and becoming more common in some parts of North America is known as "chalking the door." The custom involves writing the initials of the Magi, who are traditionally known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, on or above the door of one’s home. Those initials—C.M.B.—also stand for the phrase Christus mansionem benediciat, Latin for "may Christ bless this dwelling." Believers also add numbers for the current year and plus signs that represent Christianity's cross.

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