Epiphany 2016: Dates, Customs And History Of 'Three Kings Day'

It's the day the Magi visited Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, center, sings with carolers during a reception for carol singers from all over Germany at th
German chancellor Angela Merkel, center, sings with carolers during a reception for carol singers from all over Germany at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.

The Feast of the Epiphany, marking the end of the 12 Days of Christmas and the new season of Epiphany, is observed on Wednesday, January 6, 2016.

Epiphany -- which is variously known as Theophany, Three Kings Day and El Dia de los Tres Reyes -- is a Christian celebration of the revelation of the birth of Jesus to the wider world. This is embodied most in the story of three wise men visiting a newborn Jesus with gifts, found in the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12.

In this story, Magi (wise men) from the east follow a star to Jerusalem, where they ask the presiding king, Herod, what he knows about a newly born "King of the Jews." This sounds like a challenge to Herod, who gathers his priests to learn where and who is this king. They relay a prophecy that Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and Herod sends the Magi there, saying: "Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." The wise men -- Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar -- eventually find Mary and her son, Jesus, to whom they bow and worship. The Magi give Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and then return home, for a dream told them to bypass Herod.

While Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity focuses on the story of the Magi, Eastern Christians, like the Greek Orthodox, celebrate the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany and consider the day to be more important than Christmas.

Traditionally, Epiphany is observed by blessing the home (recalling the Magi's visit to Jesus' family), blessing water (especially the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized), exchanging gifts, performing "Magi plays" (to tell the story of Jesus' childhood) and feasting, most notably on a "King Cake."

But celebrations vary around the world. In Spain, “El Dia de los Tres Reyes” (“Three Kings’ Day”) is observed with parades, and children leave shoes out to receive gifts from the Magi.

In Poland, celebrations include blessing a piece of chalk and mark their doors with the year and the letters “K+M+B,” which are based on Latin and signify “May Christ bless this house.”

Read or listen to T.S. Eliot's poem Journey of the Magi here.

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