Josie Ortega and family celebrate Epiphany by closing out the Christmas season with a multicultural, forward-looking Three Kings Day.
As we learn about the ways people celebrate Christmas—both historically, and around the world—we may be surprised to learn that the 12 Days of Christmas are not a countdown of new Hallmark movies leading up to December 25! The 12 Days of Christmas make up Christmastide, a time of feasting to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The feast lasts from Christmas Day through January 5, or Twelfth Night—familiar thanks to Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Finally, January 6 marks the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the magi to find the newborn King Jesus.
Catholics and Episcopalians might tell you they’ve known about this calendar the whole time! I’d always been aware of Epiphany, but it wasn’t until I married into a Mexican family that I realized what a wonderful holiday Dia de Reyes could be. In Spanish speaking countries, Epiphany might be called Three Kings Day, or some variant of Dia de Tres Reyes Magos. Traditionally, that’s the day in Latin America when children receive their gifts.
I think observing Epiphany is worthwhile, even for those families whose churches don’t recognize it or don’t have Mexican traditions to embrace. Epiphany literally means "manifestation", and its themes of light and revelation make for a satisfying way to close out Christmas and propel us into the new year. Three reasons I love it:
Without making it an elaborate event, simply marking Epiphany on the calendar gives a natural, satisfying end to the Christmas holidays. Planning for a spacious enjoyment of those 12 days allows the Advent season to be a less stressful preparation time. When the long winter break feels defined, we’re more likely to relax, as opposed to feeling guilty for already being Christmas-ed out before Christmas has even begun.
Defining the end of Christmas as Epiphany doesn’t necessarily change what those hazy days between Christmas and New Year’s look like, but the shift in attitude gives me the freedom to relax, enjoy and savor the season.
In our house, observing the 12 days of Christmas means that we’ll enjoy some of those bonus items that didn’t make the Advent essentials list. We might drive out to see the house with the wildest Christmas lights; go to the movies or to museums, or make our famous Mexican Hot Chocolate mix to deliver to neighbors. If all the family visits aren’t made and all the gifts aren’t delivered until Jan. 6: no problem!
I was delighted to learn that in some cultures, Epiphany is a special day for mothers. Known as Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas in Ireland, men take on all the housework while the ladies go enjoy time with their moms, sisters, aunts, and friends. Mama’s earned her holiday!
For moms and the entire family, I think it’s helpful to have what Lazy Genius Kendra Adachi calls a closing ceremony for big seasons like Christmas. It gives us time to think back and be grateful for the holiday. Plus, cleaning up the decorations can become more of a party and less of a chore.
Some of our neighbors hold an annual burning of the Christmas trees on Epiphany, a delightful community-building pine-scented bonfire! I consider it the perfect cleaning party.
The worldwide Feast of Epiphany offers our family the opportunity to embrace traditions that I never had growing up. Multicultural bonus points!
In Mexico, the three kings or wise men deliver gifts on January 6, before continuing on their way to find Baby Jesus. (And in some countries like Russia, the Christ Child himself brings the gifts!)
Preparing for Dia de Reyes can feel similar to Christmas Eve: instead of stockings, children place their shoes outside. And instead of milk and cookies for St. Nick, they make sure to leave hay for the camels.
Multicultural families like ours can have the best of both worlds. Our kids find gifts from Santa on Christmas morning, as well as one final Christmas treat from Los Reyes Magos on Epiphany. (Perhaps, if they’re truly wise, the wise kings take advantage of regifting or post-Christmas sales. It’s impossible to know.)
This cultural element of Epiphany isn’t restricted to families like ours. In fact, a curious, outward-looking attitude is itself contained in the nature of the holiday.
We don’t know many details about the mysterious magi—wise men? kings? astrologers?—who followed a star and traveled to acknowledge a newborn Hebrew king. There are plenty of legends and traditions. But, for certain, they were from out of town. The wealthy wise men give an international flair to our nativity scenes, foreshadowing that Jesus was born for everyone—not just for Israel but also, as Simeon sang, “a Light to enlighten the nations.”
A beautiful bright star, a light for the nations, and plenty for us to ponder. As with most holidays, we can bring these lofty ideas down to home through food. Why not observe Epiphany by enjoying a meal from another part of the world that’s unusual for us? I’ve got my eye on the new Indian restaurant in our neighborhood. I’m really going to run with the no-housework Women’s Christmas idea. But if you’re not worn out, go ahead and experiment with an international recipe! A King Cake or Rosca de Reyes would be fun.
Not only does Epiphany help us to enjoy Christmas thoroughly and end the season in a satisfying way, but it helps us pivot from the celebrations and move forward into the year with holiday spirit.
Few phrases are more satisfying to utter than “I had an epiphany!”
As the name suggests, Epiphany is about a sudden revelation. For those of us in the Christian tradition, the incarnation—the revelation of God in human form—is what changes us forever, bringing lasting hope, peace, joy, and love.
Talking about an epiphany or revelation suggests action: that we need to do something with all that goodwill toward men that marks the Christmas holiday.
Of course, kindness and generosity shouldn’t be limited to December. If there was an act of service or particular gift-giving opportunity that the family enjoyed during the holidays, Epiphany might be the perfect time for a family discussion on how to make that mission a regular part of the new year.
Speaking of the new year, certain January traditions fold nicely into an Epiphany celebration, such as:
We're ending Christmas well, and considering how to share goodwill with all people.
Although we're pivoting to look outside our own doors, still I can't leave out home decor! Packing away the Christmas decorations and all the red and green ribbon feels really nice come January. But when we celebrate Epiphany, we can feel free to leave lights, candles, and gold and white decorations like stars. By all means, keep the twinkle lights through January!
Feliz Dia de Reyes. Happy Epiphany Day! May all our families learn to move forward in light more and more!