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The Epiphany, a feast day celebrated by Catholics and Christians around the world, arrives this week. The event is also known as Three Kings Day, El Dia de Los Tres Reyes, Twelfth Night, Theophany, or Little Christmas.

What Is The Epiphany?

According to dictionary.com, an epiphany means "an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity.” In this case, the celebration of the Epiphany marks the day the Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus after his birth. That came 12 days after his birth, thus the name the Twelfth Night is often substituted.

The celebration also marks when John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the River Jordan.

The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches emphasize the visit of the Magi when they celebrate Epiphany. Eastern Orthodox churches focus on Jesus’s baptism.

Most celebrants, including those in the United States, recognize January 6 as Epiphany. Others start counting from Christmas Day itself, making January 5 the day to celebrate.

How Is It Celebrated?

Epiphany celebrations vary around the world. One of the best known is in French Catholic culture. Epiphany marks the start of Mardi Gras when King cakes are baked and served. A small figurine, or king, is hidden inside the cake while baking. The person who finds the king is said to have good luck.

In Mexico, crowds gather to taste the rosca de reyes, or king’s bread. They offer prayers to the Three Wise Men, holy water is blessed, and herbs are burned.

In Europe, customs include Star Singers, children singing carols outside homes while dressed as kings and holding up a large star. As part of the tradition, the singers will collect money for charitable causes for their efforts.

In Austria, celebrants mark their front doors with chalk, writing the initials C, B, and M to represent the names of the three wise men: Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior.

In Spain and other Latin American countries, there are fireworks, parades, and the delivery of gifts to children. Some believe it is the Three Wise Men who deliver gifts -- not Santa Claus -- during the holidays, so in some cultures, the Christmas presents are not opened until Epiphany.

Other Traditions

The night before Epiphany, some children will leave out drinks for the three wise men, much like the milk and cookies left for Santa Claus. The next morning, they will find sweets or cookies in their place.

In other cultures, empty shoes are left outside the front door to be filled with the treats overnight.

Other believers mark the baptism of Jesus by submerging themselves in ice water three times to wash themselves of their sins. In Bulgaria, priests will throw a cross into the sea and believers will dive in the water in a competition to find the cross.

Taking Down Decorations

In many celebrations, Epiphany also marks the day when Christmas decorations should be taken down. Legend has it that spirits live in the Christmas tree, holly, and ivy, and if decorations are taken down too early, they will be released outside and impact the harvest. Tradition also says that if decorations are left up after Epiphany, they should remain up until Candlemas Day on February 2.

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