One of the oldest Christian feasts, Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi at the stable in Bethlehem. ‘Epiphany’ comes from the Greek word for ‘manifestation’ and this was the first occasion that Christ manifested himself to Gentiles.
Twelfth Night, as it became known, was once an immensely popular festive occasion in England, with masques, plays, dancing, singing, gambling and other revelries. Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that he hosted such an event. Farmers used to wassail their orchards and fields on 6th January, to ensure a plentiful and successful harvest. Wassail (from Old English Wes Hal, meaning ‘be of good health’) still survives in west country apple orchards. Cider is poured around the roots of the best tree, guns are fired through the branches and a piece of toast is placed in the branches while everyone sings the ‘wassail song’ asking the trees to bear large crops of juicy fruit.
In the Chapel Royal in St James’ Palace, London, an Epiphany service has been held annually for the last nine hundred years, to commemorate the gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Afterwards a gift of money is given to charity, frankincense to a church and myrrh to a hospital.
A lavishly spiced fruit cake was made for the Twelfth Night supper. Dating back to the fourteenth century, the cake wasn’t iced but decorated with colourful candied fruits and contained a bean and a pea. The man who found the bean in his slice became king of the festivities for the evening and the woman who found the pea was queen. In later years, charms with symbolic meanings were also hidden in the cake. The modern Christmas cake is the direct descendant of the Twelfth Night cake. Pride of place on the table was given to the Twelfth Night Pie. When the pie was cut open a flock of live birds flew out to the astonishment and delight of the guests – source of the reference to the ‘four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’ which began to sing when the pie was opened. Edible pies were also enjoyed!
The French have kept many of their historic Epiphany feast day customs and friends and family gather for the traditional evening meal. The thirteen desserts of Christmas (fruits, nuts, sweetmeats, biscuits, cakes and pastries) remain on the table for the twelve days of Christmas to be eaten at the meal. Every region has its own unique Twelfth Night cake, ranging from a rich fruited brioche to a crisp flaky pastry galette filled with a rich almond cream. In Lorraine the first slice of the cake was for God and the second for the Virgin Mary. These slices were given to the first poor people to request them.
Spanish children leave out their shoes (together with straw for the camels) for the Magi to fill with sweets and gifts. The 6th January is a public holiday with fireworks and parades, to welcome the arrival of the Three Kings. It is customary to enjoy a cup of lusciously rich hot chocolate as part of the traditional refreshments.
The Day of the Kings is the most important feast of the Christmas season in Puerto Rico and time-honoured delicacies such as baked yams and stuffed banana leaves are enjoyed, amidst much dancing and singing.