We’re in the weird week between Christmas and New Year’s. It means a break from school and sometimes work. It can mean a time of reflection on the year past and preparing for the year ahead.
When I was a kid, my good friend had this long skinny thing that they hung on their kitchen doorway at Christmastime. It was made of cloth and had numbers, I think 1-12, along with string at each number to tie on a small gift. It was like a “Twelve Days of Christmas” thing, where starting twelve days before Christmas, she would open one small gift each day. I thought it was the coolest thing. I can’t, for the life of me, remember what they called it. I knew about Advent calendars, but they didn’t call it anything related to Advent. Anyway, for several years after having kids, I would go to the Dollar Tree and buy twelve gifts for my three girls, wrap them up, and let them each unwrap one gift per day leading up to Christmas.
A couple years ago, I was looking at a calendar and wondered exactly what the holiday called Epiphany meant. I had heard of it, or at least seen it on calendars, but never really knew what it was. It turns out the “Twelve Days of Christmas” with the twelve little gifts should technically be done after Christmas, during Epiphany.
So what, exactly, is Epiphany?
Epiphany is also known as “Feast of the Epiphany” or “Three Kings’ Day.” Some Eastern traditions call it “Theophany.” Most of the research I did differentiates between Western and Eastern (Eastern Orthodox Church) Christian traditions.
A basic summary of Epiphany is the time between Dec. 25th and Jan. 6th, which is the official “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Kids get gifts in their shoes in some traditions, over this time, or on Jan. 6th – the day of Epiphany in the West. This time period is recognized as the time the Magi or Wise Men or Kings came to visit Jesus. I learned several years ago that the Wise Men weren’t at the birth of Jesus. The Bible even states that they came to see Jesus when he was young, probably a toddler, and in a house. (Read Matthew chapter 2) This means that our traditional nativity scenes with Wise Men (which the Bible doesn’t even say how many there were) are not correct. I have heard people say, when they learned this, that they put the Wise Men somewhere else in the house, not with baby Jesus. Some people even slowly move the Wise Men closer over the span of time from Christmas to Epiphany to symbolize this more accurately.
So in the Western traditions, Epiphany is celebrated Jan. 6th and commemorates the Magi coming to give honor to Jesus as evidence that Jesus also came for the salvation of the Gentiles (not just Jews). The evening before Epiphany is called “Twelfth Night.” Many places have pastries on Epiphany and kids get gifts in their shoes.
The Epiphany holiday originated in the Eastern traditions, where it included celebrating Jesus’ birth (i.e. Christmas). The East celebrates on Jan. 19th. They more often call it “Theophany,” (which means a visible manifestation to humankind of God), as they focus more on celebrating the incarnation of God and the manifestation of Christ as both fully human and fully God. They therefore commemorate Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22) and his first miracle at Cana in Galilee (John 2:1-12) as representation of Jesus’ divinity. They also recognize Jesus’ manifestation to the Gentiles by way of the Magi visiting and honoring Jesus. Water is involved in many celebrations, representing Jesus’ baptism, such as blessing houses with holy water.
Celebrating Epiphany leads me to the little known holiday called Candlemas. Candlemas is also known as “Presentation of the Lord,” “Presentation of Christ in the Temple,” or “Hypapante.” In my research, it sounds like it is mainly Roman Catholics that recognize Candlemas, which is probably why I hadn’t heard of it.
Candlemas is celebrated Feb. 2nd, 40 days after Christmas. This holiday recognizes when Jesus’ mother, Mary, (and Joseph), in obedience to Jewish law, took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to God, and Mary to be purified after the birth. (Luke 2:22-40)
The earliest reference to this holiday was from Jerusalem in the late 4th century, where it was celebrated Feb. 14th, 40 days after Epiphany. (In that time, Epiphany was also the celebration of Christ’s birth.) (Maybe this is where the merging of Jesus’ birth with recognizing the Wise Men coming to honor Jesus came from in our modern symbolization of the nativity with Wise Men.) In 542, Justinian I moved the date to Feb. 2nd, 40 days after Christmas. In the mid-5th century, celebrating with lighted candles became the custom, thus the name Candlemas.
In the West, Pope Sergius I (687-701) instituted the observance in Rome. It was primarily a celebration of of the Virgin Mary, calling it “Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” But now it is called “Presentation of the Lord.”
In the East, it is mainly a festival of Christ. The Anglican Church calls it “Presentation of Christ in the Temple.” The Greek (I think Greek Orthodox) church calls it “Hypapante,” which means “Meeting.” This is in reference to the aged Simeon meeting the young Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.
It is this last meaning of the Greek church that resonates most with me. I love that it was prophesied that Simeon wouldn’t die until he had met Jesus – God in the flesh. Commemorating this meeting seems so special as we try to wrap our heads around how overjoyed and honored and in awe Simeon must have felt in being able to meet our Savior. Even though Jesus was just a baby, Simeon knew Who he beheld.
I hope you found this post interesting and informative, and maybe you want to recognize or celebrate the “12 Days of Christmas,” Twelfth Night, Epiphany, or Candlemas. This time of holidays (Dec. 25th-Feb. 2nd) recognizes Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Magi to honor Jesus (recognizing Him as the Savior of the Gentiles), the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and Simeon’s meeting of Jesus.
In celebration of the first coming of our Savior Jesus,