Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Christ as Savior of the whole world. This good news was made known through the coming of the wise men to see the baby Jesus. God had revealed to them by the star that the baby Jesus was God come to live among people. It is traditionally observed on January 6 in the liturgical calendar.
Epiphany was first observed in second-century Egypt, as both the day of Jesus’s birth and baptism. December 25 wasn’t established as a separate celebration of the nativity until around A.D. 336 and has never been universally celebrated on that day.
Today, January 6 and its eve are days of high festivity in some cultures, but in most North American churches we have ignored this traditional feast day. The Wise Men have gotten mixed up with the shepherds, the angels, the stable, and the manger of Christmas. It is time we reclaimed Epiphany as a separate celebration with a meaning and significance all its own. Epiphany contains a wealth of educational opportunities for church educators.
The biblical significance of Epiphany
The word Epiphany means “manifestation,” “showing,” or, less literally, “a moment of recognition.” Epiphany celebrates God’s manifestation of Jesus in three ways.
First, Epiphany celebrates the fact that Jesus came to all people. The story most often associated with Epiphany is that of Wise Men from the East following the star as it led them to Jesus (Matt. 2:1–12). Foreigners bowing before the new king show that God offers the Messiah to the whole world, not to just one race or nation.
The second manifestation showed Jesus’ divinity. After his baptism by John in the Jordan River, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus. Then a voice came from heaven proclaiming him as God’s Son (Matt. 3:16–17).
Finally, Jesus’s power was manifested at the wedding feast in Cana. It was here that he performed his first public miracle, changing water into wine.
These three events—the Magi’s visit, Jesus’s baptism, and the miracle at Cana—are traditionally associated with January 6. Although all three moments of recognition are observed on Epiphany, the majority of customs associated with the holiday in the Western world relate to the “Three Kings.”
The biblical account does not offer many details about the foreigners or their visit. Much of what we think we know is based in tradition, not Scripture. Legend has fleshed out the visitors by giving them names, homelands, and even experiences on their journey, both before and after their encounter with Jesus.
Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day)
In many Latin American and Spanish-speaking countries, they celebrate Epiphany as Día de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings’ Day. And unlike in the United States and Canada, it is a major part of the Christmas celebration. Día de los Tres Reyes Magos takes place on January 6 and is the culmination of the 12 days of Christmas. On this day, Christians remember how the wise men brought their gifts of gold, frankicense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
In many families who celebrate Tres Reyes Magos, children receive most of their gifts on January 6 instead of December 25. To honor this tradition, you could consider saving some gifts to open until January 6. This also offers an alternative to Santa Claus for families. Instead of waiting for Santa Claus to arrive, you are waiting for the magi to arrive with their gifts to celebrate Jesus’s birth. Another way to celebrate with your family or church is with a special cake. It is customary in Mexico to make a Rosca de Reyes cake for Tres Reyes Magos celebrations (recipe here). Baked into this cake is a small doll that represents the baby Jesus. This hidden doll symbolizes how the baby Jesus had to be hidden from King Herod.
Hosting an Epiphany party
Many Epiphany customs from Western Europe and Great Britain come together in a traditional Epiphany party. The Epiphany party is fun and educational for adults, teens, and children. It works well for a choir party, a church school program, a youth group meeting, or an intergenerational event for the entire congregation.
As guests arrive, greet them at the door and ask them to remove one shoe. Hobbling around with only one shoe remaining reminds them of the long, difficult journey the Wise Men took to Bethlehem. The shoes are lined up along a wall.
Refreshments, including a “King’s Cake,” are served first. Three dried beans are usually baked in the cake. All who find a bean in his or her piece of cake are crowned monarchs for the rest of the party. You may want to have more or less than three beans, depending on the size of your group. Changing the number from the expected three would provide an opportunity to explain that no one really knows how many Magi made the trip.
Next, the humble subjects help the kings and queens get in costume for their parts with dress-ups provided. These may include robes, colorful lengths of fabric, costume jewelry, tablecloths, curtains, and so on.
The Wise Ones are excused from the room for a few minutes. While they are gone, quietly place a small gift inside each empty shoe. Try not to be seen by the party guests. When the monarchs return, have them ask where the Christ Child is. Everyone responds with joy. “He is here indeed, among us. Come let us celebrate together!” To celebrate the presence of the Lord, the Wise Ones distribute gifts by matching up the shoes.
Next comes entertainment for the esteemed royalty. Divide the members of the party (excluding the kings and queens) into three groups. Each group has about twenty minutes to devise an appropriate entertainment or service for the monarchs. Some suggestions might be singing a song, performing a skit, reading a poem, giving a group shoulder rub, or leading a group game. (If your group is very large, divide into teams of about ten. You may need to spread the Wise Ones out around the room and have them entertained individually by several teams instead of doing this all together.)
After the formal entertainment, the party may continue with more fellowship time, carol singing, crafts, games, or refreshments. Be sure to wish everyone a happy Epiphany as they leave!
Most people complain of too much to do in too little time during Advent, and many suffer from post-Christmas letdown. A good solution to both problems would be to have a church-sponsored gathering at Epiphany rather than before Christmas, and to share together the joy of God-With-Us together on January 6.
Celebrating Epiphany in a classroom setting
If we are to reclaim Epiphany, the first step will be to get the facts straight as Matthew tells them. Reread the story with a careful eye and realize that the Gospel does not put the visit of the Wise Men at the stable but at a house. Most scholars attest that the visitors arrived in Bethlehem as much as two years after Jesus’ birth, according to the biblical account (Matt. 2:16). You may want to consult a Bible commentary at this step.
Read the story again, this time looking for images or themes that you may choose to explore with your class or group. Some possibilities are star, crown, camel, travel, gifts, light, two-year-old child, or going home a different way.
Plan activities that allow children or youth to revisit the biblical story to get the facts straight while building on your chosen theme. Some ideas are:
1. Act out the story, using a two- year-old Jesus and as many magi as necessary to ensure that each student has a part.
2. Let everybody dress up as a king or queen and make a crown.
3. Together decorate a large cardboard box to be used to collect gifts of canned goods, then deliver your gift to a food bank.
4. Make stars.
5. At the end of class session, have students leave the room or church in a way different from the route they usually take. Parents might want to take an alternate route home, as did the Wise Men.
6. Compare and contrast the visiting kings with Herod. What kind of rulers were they? What were the expectations of the visiting kings and of Herod about Jesus? Compare King Herod with Christ the King as well.
7. Learn a new Epiphany song such as “Take Time” by Avery and Marsh (The Avery and Marsh Songbook).*
The possibilities for creative educational opportunities on the Epiphany theme are endless and not limited to the classroom. Your whole congregation may want to be involved in celebrating Epiphany with a church-wide party on or near January 6.
Giving Epiphany its due helps all of us to better understand Jesus, his mission in the world, and our own response to the gift of God’s grace. Don’t let this opportunity for ministry pass you by.
Twelfth Night family celebration ideas
Epiphany is a festival that lends itself well by theme and tradition to fun family activity. Before beginning the evening meal on Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve), use the following service. It may also be used again on the Sundays in Epiphany. There is one white candle lit in the center of the table. There is an unlit white candle at each place.
|All:||(sing) “Shine, Jesus, Shine” or “We Are Marching in the Light of God (Siyahamba)”|
|Parent:||God, who by a star led wise men from far away to see the child Jesus; draw us and others to him, so that, praising you now, we may in life come to meet you face to face; through Christ our Lord. Amen.|
|Parent:||In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Jesus is the light of the world.|
|Child:||A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.|
|Child:||Neither do people light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick. And it gives light to all that are in the house. (Each person lights his/her personal candle from the Christ candle.)|
|All:||(Holding candles high) Let our light so shine before people that they may see our good works and glorify God.|
|All:||Thank the Lord, for he is good and his mercy endures forever. Amen.|
For dessert, have a special Epiphany cake. This is traditionally a spice cake but some families prefer a chocolate/coconut Bundt cake. The Bundt shape cake resembles a crown. Place a ring of bright gumdrops (yellow, orange, and red) around the top of the cake to form “jewels” for the crown. The cake conceals three foil-wrapped coins—one for each of the wise men’s gifts. The person to find a coin leads a procession around the house. Because the wise men brought frankincense, light frankincense in an incense burner and carry it around the house. In Austria this means, “Tonight the wise men (kings) are coming; we must make them feel welcome.” Incense is a symbol for prayer and each family member offers a statement in each room about what they as a family hope to experience there in the coming year: good sleep, good food, good fellowship, etc.
Ponder: How do we as a family want to witness to the light of the world during this season? How will the light spread? As you find creative ways to spread the light in your community and around the world, consider concrete reminders for family members. Perhaps you would like to leave the porch light on or fly a banner/flag. Your family may put electric candles in the window. You might spend more time star gazing on clear evenings. If your family enjoys crafts, consider making Chinese lanterns. How will your light touch the hearts of those around you?
Entering into the season of Epiphany
During the remainder of the season, use a different verse each week on the theme of light (“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” Isaiah 60:1; “Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,’ ” John 8:12; “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light…Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord,” Ephesians 5:8–10, etc.). Children can take turns lighting candles for the evening meal and being the leader for the verse. As it is repeated throughout the week, it usually isn’t long before everyone can say it by heart.
The ideas shared here were adapted from material written by Dianne Deming and Carol Myers that is no longer available in print.