Twelfth Night, Epiphany, and all that!

Epiphany is the first Christian holiday after Christmas, and falls on 6th January, but when is Twelfth Night and are the two related?

Most Christians in the UK recognise that Christmas Day is on 25th December, and that starts the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’.  The next day is the Feast of the Epiphany.  This is when the coming of the ‘Three Wise Men’ is commemorated.

Twelfth Night falls on 5th January, as this is exactly 12 days from 25th December.  In Britain, it is a tradition that Christmas decorations are taken down on or by Twelfth Night.  Some people think it is bad luck to leave your decorations up after this.  This partly stems from some of the Victorian traditions that we’ve incorporated into our Christmas celebrations.  However, it is also linked to ancient times when people believed tree spirits resided in Christmas greenery, and so they must be released back into nature once the festive period is over.  Legend had it that failing to do this means greenery will not grow back in the spring.

Epiphany celebrates the Three Wise Men’s visit to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus.  It is known as Three King’s Day in the Spanish speaking world as well as in other parts of continental Europe.  The Western Church began celebrating Epiphany in the 4th century.  It is associated with the visit of the magi (wise men) to the infant Jesus.  They followed a star in the sky to where Jesus was, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The name ‘Epiphany’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘to reveal’, as it is when the baby Jesus was ‘revealed’ to the world.

As with many ancient stories, it has been embellished along the way.

  • Despite what’s seen in nativity plays etc, these Wise Men didn’t arrive at the stable whilst the shepherds were still there.  They took a while to arrive and it’s probable that Mary, Joseph and Jesus had moved somewhere else by the time they arrived.
  • We use the term ‘Wise Men’ but we’re not entirely sure what their occupation was. They’ve been assigned many roles – kings, sorcerers, astronomers, astrologers, or philosophers.  Whatever their occupations, we can assume from their gifts that they were affluent, and from the fact that they knew how to track a star we can assume that they were pretty clever.
  • We’re not actually sure there were 3 of them.  That’s assumed that from the fact that there were 3 gifts.
  • We don’t know that they rode on camels although it is possible.
  • Although from that period of history it’s likely that they were men, we don’t even know their gender.

The gifts they brought, though, are symbolic:

  • Gold – because they thought of Jesus as a king
  • Myrrh – because they knew Jesus’ death would be significant
  • Frankincense – because they recognised Jesus as God.
Mary Vickers
Mary Vickers moved to North East Lincolnshire in 2010, from the Wiltshire/Hampshire border, to become Urban and Industrial Chaplain NELincs. Made redundant in 2017, she's maintained many of her connections within the business, faith, and other local communities. She's also decided to stay here rather than return to either the south or her husband's native Yorkshire, so that she can continue to enjoy and help promote the positives of NELincs.