• Kate McGowan

Epiphany, the last hurrah for Christmas.

It’s January 6th, and if you’re particularly organized, you might have packed away all of your Christmas decorations by now. But does Christmas really have to be over so soon? In modern America, we tend to think so, but traditionally the Christmas holiday was a 12-day affair, full of food, feasting, and merriment kicking off on Christmas Day and culminating twelve days later on January 6th, a holiday known as Epiphany.

The Adoration of the Kings, Gerard David c. 1515 ( via National Gallery London)

In the western Christian tradition, Epiphany, also known variously worldwide as Three Kings Day or Little Christmas, commemorates the visit of the magi. Celebration of Epiphany, much like the celebration of Christmas, varies widely worldwide. In many parts of Latin America, this is the preferred date for gift exchanges, while in parts of Ireland, the holiday is colloquially known as “Women’s Christmas” and is often seen as a day for women to relax and socialize together after the business of the Christmas season.

In most of the US, Epiphany might warrant little more than a church visit today, but in the 18th century, especially for Anglicans in the colonies, Epiphany and the night before, known as Twelfth Night, could often be a bigger celebration than Christmas Day itself. While Christmas Day might be a small family affair, Twelfth Night was often observed with grand parties, especially by the Chesapeake gentry, who would use the occasion as means to re-assert their wealth and status. A typical Twelfth Night party would generally include music and dancing, games, and most importantly, a sizeable feast, at the center of which was a Twelfth Night Cake.