Epiphany: Three Kings Day

The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c.565, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored 18th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes, and Phrygian caps. Wikipedia

By Sandra Alvarez

Today, I finally take down my Christmas tree. I’m one of those people who keep it up until January 6th every year. While Pope Francis holds a Mass in Rome commemorating Epiphany, I will be boxing gold and red baubles, vacuuming glitter off my floor, and weeping over credit card receipts. Aren’t we done celebrating yet, you ask? Not quite, let me explain…

Epiphany, is the celebration of Jesus’ baptism and the celebration of the visit of the Three Kings, The Magi, to Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. There is some confusion over Twelfth Night and Epiphany, depending on where you live and how you count the days from Christmas, some celebrate Twelfth Night on the evening of January 5th, while others celebrate the 6th. In the Middle Ages. If you’re Orthodox, it’s celebrated on January 19th. Twelfth Night was a popular celebration, regarded as important as Christmas.


Commemoration of the holiday began as early as the fourth century. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning “Manifestation”, the time where Jesus appeared to the world, i.e., non-Gentiles (non-Jewish people). The Three Magi represented these people: Melchior, a Persian king, Balthazar, the King of Arabia and Caspar, the king of India.

Until recently, Epiphany was celebrated for a much longer period of time. January 6th signalled the start of another eight days of celebration (known as octaves) by the Church. The eight day Feast of Epiphany began on January 6th and finished on January 13th; a tradition that dates back to the eighth century. In the Middle Ages, there were so many of these octaves that over time, starting in the sixteenth century, the Church began to whittle them down. Epiphany’s octave was finally cut by the Catholic in 1955 and now it is a one day hurrah.



Epiphany and Twelfth Night both have some wonderful traditions. In the Czech Republic and Poland, the names of the Three Kings are written above the door along with the year as a form of blessing for the home, i.e., ‘K†M†B† 2016’. I remember this well because of my Polish background; I grew up with many Polish traditions and saw this inscription written over the doors of neighbouring Polish families every year. Poles also bake these delicious Three King’s pastries known as szczodraki (sh-ch-oh-drakee) ‘generosity cakes’, which are often sweet rolls, can also have meat, cheese, or sauerkraut and mushroom tucked inside. They were given to children and carollers on Epiphany.

We’re not done with cakes! King’s Cakes are also a feature at this time of year in French and Spanish speaking countries. In French culture, they eat either a cake called Galette (northern France) or Gateau des Rois (southern France), filled with candied fruit. In many Spanish-speaking countries, the cake is known as Rosca de Reyes. All of these cakes have a little trinket hidden inside that will bring good fortune to the person who gets the lucky slice.

Eastern Orthodox churches have a tradition of blessing water where the priest tosses a cross into the sea, a river or lake, and worshippers dive in to rescue it. The lucky person who saves the cross receives a special blessing for himself and his household. The blessed water is taken home by some the faithful and used to sprinkle around the house to bless the home, and in some cases, people drink the water as a means of blessing themselves.

'Lambswool' or 'Wassail'. Photo by
‘Lambswool’ or ‘Wassail’. Photo by

Twelfth Night used to be held on January 17th, according to the old Julian Calendar. The English used to celebrate Twelfth Night on January 17th by Wassailing, originally a medieval German tradition thought to bring good luck to the apple harvest in autumn. Waes Heil was a greeting wishing the person good health. In the Anglo-Saxon, it was Vaa Hael. The earliest written records of wassailing were in 1486, from a church in St. Albans.


People would drink Wassail or Lambswool, a hot apple punch. The name Lambswool is thought to be a corruption of the old Celtic words La mas ubal, meaning, Day of the Apple Fruit. In some parts of Southern England, the celebration of the old calendar Twelfth Night on January 17th is still a tradition and locals gather around apple trees and hang toast soaked in cider from its branches and sing, or go singing from house to house, wishing their neighbours good health.


1.) Lambswool Recipe,

2.) Szczodraki – na Trzech Króli,, January 2 (2014),48,szczodraki-na-trzech-kroli.html

3.) What is Epiphany? Here are 10 facts about the history and meaning of Three Kings Day, The Telegraph, Rozina Sabur, January 5 (2016)

4.) Let’s bring back the glorious food traditions of Twelfth Night (largely, lots of cake), The Telegraph, LifeStyle: Food and Drink, Johanna Perry, January 4 (2016)


Top Image: The Three Magi, Byzantine mosaic c.565, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (restored 18th century). As here Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes, and Phrygian caps. Wikipedia