Epiphany: Family Activities

Index of Christmas holiday posts


An earlier post reflected upon the story of the magi in the second chapter of Matthew. The arrival of the magi to worship the Christ child is usually celebrated on Epiphany, January 6. This celebration is an older tradition than that of celebrating Christmas on December 25th. Epiphany means “the showing,” that is, the showing of the Messiah to the Gentile nations, represented by the Magi. The Messiah’s work is of universal scope, for all the nations and not merely the house of Israel.

Nativity: In Advent we place the figures of the magi far away from the stable of Bethlehem, somewhere in the easternmost part of the house. Every few nights we move them closer to the nativity scene, so that they will arrive on January 6 for the feast of Epiphany.

Gift giving: Through the years our children received gifts on three days: the feast of St. Nicholas (Dec 6), as explained in a post on Santa Claus; from relatives (but not from us) on Christmas Day, in honor of Jesus’ birthday; and then on Epiphany, when we have our own family gift exchange in imitation of the magi. Spreading out the gift exchanges this way is easier on the budget (purchases are spread over two months instead of one, and we can take advantage of post-Christmas sales), fits well with our annual travels to visit family for the days around December 25th, allows us to choose gifts that fill in the gaps without duplication, and also greatly tones down the focus on gifts on Christmas Day. There are far too many Christmas stories, movies, songs and albums to run out of things to do each evening (see Christmas nights at home for a short list of our favorites), so we unhurriedly stretch the season as long as possible, from Thanksgiving to Epiphany.

Epiphany Celebration:
On or near January 6th, we enjoy an annual Epiphany Celebration, after which we have our main family gift exchange, as noted above. Other activities on this night include:

  • The shepherds and their sheep have been removed from the nativity to their former positions in the “fields.” The magi have been journeying toward the nativity from the easternmost part of the house, and tonight they arrive in “Bethlehem” to present their gifts to the Christ Child.
  • Although the wise men are traditionally held to have been kings from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba (cf. Ps 72), named Caspar, Melchior, and Baltassar, their actual names, nationality, and number are not known. There must have been exactly as many as there are now children to participate! Dress up – kings, camels, donkeys, gifts, crowns (make them together) – then come in from the east in regal procession while Matthew’s account of their arrival is read.
  • One traditional activity for Epiphany is to bake a crown-shaped cake, and place colorful and edible “jewels” in the icing.
  • Read Longfellow’s “The Three Kings,” for its driving rhythm and evocative images of traditional magi lore.
  • Read T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” for its wistful reflections on how the lives of magi could never again be the same. Listen to Steve Bell, “Old Sage,” which nicely complements Eliot’s thoughts.
  • An illustrated story with a great message that is memorable, ably-told and which sets an evocative mood is Henry Van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man, illustrated by J.R. Flanagan (1907). Cf. Favorite Christmas Storybooks.
  • Sing:
    • Do You Hear What I Hear?
    • Nothing But A Child
    • We Three Kings
    • Star in the East
    • Angels from the Realms of Glory
    • I Saw Three Ships
    • As with Gladness Men of Old
  • Watch or listen to “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Menotti.
  • Watch the Oscar-winning short video “Star in the Night,” found on the Christmas in Connecticut DVD (1945).

After the joyous seasons of Advent and the 12 days of Christmas, the Epiphany Celebration draws our celebration of the birth of Christ to an end. We usually take down the tree, nativity, and decorations the next day, not too long after the Christmas lights have gone out on other homes in our neighborhood. 🙂

Albrecht Durer, Adoration of the Magi
Albrecht Durer, Adoration of the Magi


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4 Responses to Epiphany: Family Activities

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