What do we celebrate on Epiphany?

What do we celebrate on Epiphany?


It is in the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew that the story which is at the origin of this festival is told (verses 1 to 12). In liturgical language, we speak of a “solemnity” because it directly concerns an episode in the life of Christ. In the spirit of the episodes of Christmas night, a complementary story accounts for the visit of “mages from the East” who wish to venerate the “king of the Jews who has just been born”.

Guided by the star, they arrived in Bethlehem where, “falling on their knees, they prostrated themselves before him.” The gifts they place at his feet evoke the joyful event, a prefiguration of the fulfillment of times, announced by the prophet Isaiah: this moment when the royalty of the world and their “treasures from beyond the seas” will flock to Jerusalem (book of Isaiah, chap. 60, verses 1 to 6).

Camels, dromedaries, incense, gold: the prophecy seems to outline the figure of the Three Wise Men.


The word “epiphany” is of Greek origin, coming from the root phanein which means “to shine, to appear, to show oneself”. A verb used in the biblical text to talk about the star that guides the wise men.

An epiphany is therefore this moment when decisive spiritual insight is provided. These wise men, coming from far away, are a way of signifying the first manifestation of Christ for the whole world. In fact, from a liturgical point of view, three “epiphanies” celebrate the first manifestations of Christ: the adoration of the Magi, his baptism in the Jordan and his first miracle in Cana. Coming from the Eastern Churches, this solemnity remains important, even replacing, due to their specific calendar, the Christmas of the Western Churches. Coptic and Armenian Churches celebrate this day by placing candles in windows during the night of the solemnity.

This tradition evokes the passage, at night, of Christ – a distant reminder of the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt – who comes to bless the lit houses.


In the Catholic Church, Epiphany is celebrated on the Sunday which takes place between January 2 and 8, with a preference for 6.

Many popular traditions were born from this celebration around light or the intriguing figure of the Magi. In the Cologne Cathedral (Germany), for example, relics of the Three Wise Men are venerated. Elsewhere, villages organize processions around these three figures.

In Spain, the festival is accompanied by a distribution of gifts, to evoke the gesture of the wise men in front of the child in the manger. The galette des rois and its rite of election combine an ancient ritual dating back to the Romans and its transposition, in the Middle Ages, into a Christian context. “Drawing kings” finds meaning in traditional monarchies, thus underlining the spiritual legitimacy of the authorities in place. A tradition anchored in family and culinary habits, it survived the Revolution and is widely celebrated, even in very secularized countries.

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