Today is the Christian feast day of Epiphany, marking the end of the twelve days of Christmas. In Western Christianity this occasion is used to celebrate one of the key parts of the story of Christ’s birth, the visiting of the Magi, or kings as they are better known. This is seen as God’s manifestation of himself, through Jesus Christ, to the Gentiles. The magi were first referred to as ‘wise men from the east’ although tradition later determined there to be three of them and gave their names as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In Eastern Christianity the feast of Epiphany is also used to celebrate the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, when the heavens were opened and a voice from heaven declared Jesus to be God’s beloved Son.
The scene of the adoration of the Magi has been depicted in many forms by artists across the centuries as you can see in this beautiful tapestry based on an early Italian Renaissance altarpiece by Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1370-1427).
Epiphany is celebrated around the world in many different ways with some countries choosing this day to celebrate Christmas day rather than the 25th December. With the varying celebrations there are a multitude of traditions which take place such as people waiting until this point to place the figures of the three kings into their crib scenes; a tradition which is undertaken here at Westminster Abbey.
Many English traditions surrounding Epiphany are focussed around Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany. This has become the traditional date for taking down your Christmas decorations and it was thought to be unlucky to do it before or after this time. If you had left your decorations up after Epiphany then you were told to keep them up all year to avoid bad luck. Traditionally Twelfth Night is a time to celebrate and it would be common for people to hold large parties. This dates back to medieval and Tudor times when Twelfth night was used to mark the end of winter, said to have started on 31st October on All Hallows Eve (Halloween).