Epiphany signifies the night on which The Three Kings were led by a star to Bethlehem to the crib side of the Christ Child, where they presented gifts to him of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s called the “Epiphany” because it marks the night when Christ’s birth was revealed to the Gentiles, while December 25th marks its revelation to Israel. Many European families exchange gifts on Epiphany, not Christmas Day. Traditionally, Epiphany is the 12th night after the birth of the Messiah: January 6th. That’s where the whole “12 Days of Christmas, partridge in a pear tree” thing comes from.
I’m kinda bummed that in the States we’ve moved The Feast of the Epiphany to the Sunday in between January 2 and January 8, so it’s not always exactly 12 days after Christmas, but this year Epiphany happens to fall on the 12th day, or January 6th.
Epiphany has really become overshadowed by Christmas Day, but it’s worth pondering its significance for our families. Both Christmas and Epiphany fall during the dark time, when the earth seems to sleep and creatures are huddled away from the cold. Both Feasts bring light to the darkness: Christ’s light glimmered on Christmas Day, as his divinity was revealed to the Chosen People of Israel. His light continues to shine in our homes on Christmas Day, as we exchange gifts and gather with family and friends. On Epiphany, we are reminded that the light of God’s love illuminates a path for the entire world, Jews and Gentiles alike. That light is no faint flicker: it’s hot and blazing like a mountain of sunbeams. All are invited to look upon it; all can see the light if they open their eyes and hearts to the simple truth before them. Jesus may seem a world away to some people because his love seems too distant to them. They cannot comprehend that God loves them so completely, that he wants to be their intimate friend, that he invites them into his own family. The love seen in our families may be the only witness for some people of that adoring love God has for them. As our children feel loved and cherished, hopefully they will emerge into the world shining that light for whomever they encounter.
What can we do to bring Epiphany into our homes? Especially for smaller children, I think visible, tangible gestures are very effective in helping them feel connected to the day. Here are a few ideas.
Our Epiphany Tea
I’ve tried to emphasize and communicate the message of Epiphany increasingly more in our home the last few years. We now leave up our Christmas tree and décor until Epiphany, then together we take them down and pack them away. But we leave our Nativity Set for last, because The Magi join us for a simple family Epiphany Tea, along with Baby Jesus snuggled in his manger.
I love to include candles and twinkly lights as part of Epiphany, because it becomes an effective way to explain the light of Christ to the children and how his light lives in all of us as love for others. Our string lights on our dining room sideboard will remain up until after our celebration and I bring out some easy to make hand-rolled beeswax candles my children made for Candlemas last year:
I’ll do a post on making these candles before Candlemas, but if you’re eager to make them for Epiphany, Magic Cabin sells kits with instructions. They’re super easy — much easier and safer to make than dipped candles and small children can even join in. We’ve been enjoying the children’s homemade candles all year.
There’s a special French cake associated with Epiphany: The King’s Cake or Galette de Rois. it’s made from almond paste and looks scrumptious. Here’s a recipe. The traditional cake is intriguing, and perhaps I’ll give it a try some day, but we just bake an ordinary ol’ cake. Last year it was a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I let the kids decide what kind of cake we make. We decorate the cake with gumdrops to represent the jewels in a king’s crown.
Whatever cake you make, the special touch is to bake a bean into the cake (wrapped in foil). The person who finds the bean is king (or queen) for the day and gets some special privileges! If you do “Christmas crackers” – little tubes that pop open when two people pull on loose foil on each end of the tube – you’ll notice there are usually paper crowns in them. We save one of these crowns to use on Epiphany for our King or Queen. This year I’m hoping to find some pretty Christmas crackers for the children to pop on Epiphany as part of our celebration. Last year, our little Lydia found the bean in our cake and she was our queen:
Last year we made “Lambs Wool” for our Epiphany tea: it’s a warm cider with frothed apples. You bake the apples first with the skin on, then poor your hot cider over the apples.
We had a blast making Lamb’s Wool, but the taste was just like ordinary cider with apple bits in it. Perhaps we’ll reevaluate our beverage offerings this year. Any kind of spiced tea, perhaps cinnamon, would be perfect for the day.
Family Story Hour
Reading the account of The Magi in the Gospels is a nice way to begin or end your Epiphany celebration. We have a few favorite storybook selections that we enjoy together on Epiphany:
The Last Straw (Thury): The journey of the 3 wise men told from the perspective a camel who is supposed to guide them to their destination. Beautiful illustrations.
The Story of the Three Wise Kings (DePaola): My children love the illustrations in all of DePaola’s books, and this one is no exception.
My way of celebrating Epiphany may be more elaborate than appeals to you or is practical for your family. More important than these outward gestures is the spirit of love that Christ gave to the world through his gift of himself. Just that one little message sums up the day. If we can all remember to love our children, our spouses, other Christians, and especially non-Christians in a way that reflects that light within us, we will live Epiphany.
God bless you all and your families!