There is a Catholic tradition that Christmas decorations go up on the 8th December, Solemnity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, or around the First Sunday of Advent, and stay up until the Epiphany which follows twelve days after Christmas, on January 6th.
Others prefer to keep the crib until the 2nd February, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple 40 days after His birth (known also as Candlemas Day, when the blessing and procession of candles is included in the liturgy).
In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, this ‘Christmas Feast’ is referred to as the Purification of Mary: The Torah commanded that a woman who had given birth to a son should not approach the Temple for 40 days; after which time she was to offer a sacrifice for her purification. By another requirement of the Law, every first-born son was to be considered as belonging to God (since the first-born sons of Israel had been spared in Egypt), and was to be redeemed as narrated in Luke 2:22-40.
The word ‘Epiphany’ comes from the Biblical Greek word ἐπιφάνεια, epipháneia, meaning ‘manifestation or appearance’: It celebrates ‘the revelation’ of God in His Son as human in Jesus Christ.
Matthew 2:1-12 records the visit of the ‘Wise Men’ or ‘Magi’:
“After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the East. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage’…”.
Tradition has it that there were three wise men -after the 3 offerings mentioned in the Gospel- and names them as:
- Melchior: who brings gold, representing wisdom and His royal standing as King of Kings;
- Caspar: who brings frankincense, representing His Divine birth and worship as true God;
- Balthazar: who brings myrrh, a funeral embalming ointment, representing morality and suffering, foretelling His Passion on the cross and the anointing when He was laid in the tomb.
Festivities for the ancient Christian feast day vary around the world, from swimming in icy waters (e.g. Bulgaria) to exchanging presents (e.g. Spain), special foods (e.g. Mexico) fireworks (e.g. Santo Domingo), parades and cavalcades (e.g. Gibraltar).
In many countries the day is a public holiday. As recently as the 1950’s, in Britain, the eve of the Epiphany or the ‘Twelfth Night’ was a night for wassailing. Wassailers, like carol singers, go from house to house singing and wishing their neighbours good health. The Drury Lane Theatre in London has had a tradition since 1795 of providing a Twelfth Night cake. The will of Robert Baddeley made a bequest of £100 to provide cake and punch every year for the company in residence at the theatre on 6 January. The tradition still continues.
Another tradition that remains to this day, is that the bones of the 3 Kings are located in Cologne Cathedral.
Originally situated in Constantinople, they were brought to Milan in an oxcart by St. Eustorgius I Bishop of Milan (from 343-49), to whom they were entrusted by the Emperor, Constantine. In 1164, the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick I ‘Barbarossa’ donated the casket of the Magi, located at the church of Saint Eustorgius, to the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel in appreciation of his services on the Emperor’s Italian campaign. Two years previously, the Emperor, with the support of the Archbishop (who was also one of the most powerful princes of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and Archchancellor of Italy) had taken Milan, which had risen up against Frederick, and seized the relics.
Archbishop Rainald campaigned to make the relics, which had been virtually unknown in Milan, famous throughout Europe and indeed, the entire Christian world. Cologne Cathedral become one of the most significant places of pilgrimage in Europe. These relics quickly attained outstanding importance, not least among German royalty. On their way home after their coronations in Aachen, German kings would traditionally stop in Cologne to venerate the relics of the biblical Wise Men, who were revered in Medieval times as the first Christian kings. Der Dreikönigenschrein or ‘Shrine of the Three Kings’ have been a site of constant pilgrimage to Cologne ever since.