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Cultural Epiphany Customs

Epiphany is celebrated all over the world with different customs and traditions. In the Western Christian tradition, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi. However, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Epiphany celebrates the moment of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River; it is called Theophany (from the Greek meaning “God shining forth” or “divine manifestation”) and it is the third of the Great Feasts of the liturgical year.

Aside from putting away Christmas decorations, some of the more common traditions include eating Epiphany cake, giving and receiving gifts, and winter swimming. Below are explanations for these cultural traditions.

A New Orleans King Cake.

Epiphany cake
Also known as King Cake, this cake is eaten in many different countries to mark the feast of Epiphany. The type of cake differs from country to country, but one commonality is that the cake generally has something hidden inside of it, like an almond, ring, or figurine of the Christ child, and whoever finds the object becomes king or queen of the festivities. Epiphany cakes are eaten in most Spanish-speaking countries, where it is called Rosca de Reyes or Roscón de reyes, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, and the United States, where it is especially popular in New Orleans.

Swimming on Epiphany in Minsk, Belarus.

Winter swimming
This is common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, like Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, and Macedonia. Winter Swimming generally includes a priest throwing a cross into a body of water and young men racing to retrieve it. The first person to get to the cross usually receives a blessing, or is believed to have good health for the year.

Russians cut holes into the ice of rivers or lakes in the shape of a cross and bathe in the freezing water. Participants dip themselves three times to symbolize the Holy Trinity, and Orthodox priests are on hand to bless the water. Rescuers are also on hand to monitor the health and safety of the swimmers.

Befana brings toys to children at night. Painting by James Lewicki, from “The Golden Book of Christmas Tales,” 1956.

Giving and receiving gifts
There are many traditions surrounding giving and receiving gifts during Epiphany. In Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico, the Philippines, and Spain, it is common for children to leave their shoes outside on the evening of January 5, in which they will find small gifts or candy the next morning.

In Ireland, Epiphany is called “Little Christmas” or “Women’s Christmas” (Nollaig na mBan) and it was tradition for women to rest and celebrate themselves after all the cooking and work of the Christmas season. Today, women visit a restaurant or a pub, and receive gifts from their children, grandchildren, or family members.

In Italy, Epiphany is associated with legend of Befana (the name being a corruption of the word Epifania), an old woman who rides a broomstick and brings gifts to children or a lump of coal to bad children on the night of January 5. The legend says that she brings gifts to children because she missed her opportunity to bring a gift to Jesus with the Three Wise Men.

“Wassailing In Herefordshire,” Huw S. Parsons, 1995.

Twelfth Night
Epiphany Eve is known as Twelfth Night. In England and Wales, Twelfth Night customs include burning the yule log and keeping the ashes to kindle the next year’s yule log, and wassailing, which is a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking to the health of trees. Wassail is hot mulled cider and the ceremony of wassailing is meant to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year.

Also in England, Twelfth Night is a popular day for plays to be performed. It is believed that Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was written around 1601‒02 specifically as Twelfth Night entertainment to close off the Christmas season.

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