Holiday / Iconography / Mosaic

Merry Christmas, Happy Epiphany, Happy Three Kings!

Written by Fani Gargova, Byzantine Research Associate

January 6th is a truly holy day in Christianity. Whether Catholic or Orthodox, yesterday marked an important holiday. Nevertheless, it can be confusing to understand how within one religion, so many different meanings can coincide on the same day. So, let’s deconstruct…

Nativity Scene in Kariye Camii

Mosaic showing the Nativity scene in the Kariye Camii, former Chora Monastery (photographed by Pierre Iskender/Byzantine Institute during the restoration work in 1947-1959, ICFA.KC.BIA.0422)

The larger part of the Christian world celebrated Christmas, i.e. the Nativity of Christ, exactly 13 days ago, on December 25th. This includes Catholics, Protestants, and Greek or Bulgarian Orthodox Christians. On the other hand, Russian, Armenian, or Serbian Orthodox Christians celebrate the Nativity of Christ today, January 7th. Commonly, this time difference of exactly 13 days is explained by the use of the Gregorian calendar by the first group and the use of the Julian calendar by the latter group.

The Gregorian calendar is used globally and is the one that we feel most familiar with. It was introduced in the late 16th century under Pope Gregorius XIII (hence the name). By contrast, the Julian calendar was an older system, the one in use in the Roman empire (and by consequence, later in the Christian world) since its introduction by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Those two calendars differ by only 0.002% (see Wikipedia), but their most important impact is on the determination of Easter, which changes from year to year. Also, since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, there has been a discrepancy of 13 days between dates in the different systems.

The Nativity of Christ has always been set on December 25th. However, Russians, Armenians, and Serbians recalculated their celebration of the Nativity according to the newer Greorgian calendar and thus celebrate Christmas on January 7th. On the other hand, Greeks and Bulgarians preserved the date of December 25th and otherwise adapted to the new Gregorian calendar.

Baptism Scene in the Parekklesion of the Fethiye Camii/Pammakaristos Monastery

Baptism scene in the parekklesion/chapel of the Fethiye Camii, former Pammakaristos Monastery (photographed by the Byzantine Institute during the restoration work in 1949-1963, FC-21-59-3)

The Epiphany has an altogether different story. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium tells us that “In the East Jesus’ birth was originally commemorated at Epiphany” (p. 1439), but the Nativity of Christ was progressively adopted by all patriarchs the latest by the 6th century. “Epiphany originally commemorated not a single event, but a mystery, the appearance of salvation in Jesus revealed in a cluster of New Testament events, principally Jesus’ birth and his baptism” (Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, p. 715). Epiphany is the feast of light and after the Nativity became a proper feast day, it commemorated, in a narrower sense, the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan. In the Julian calendar, the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th. Thus, those Orthodox Christians who accepted the old January 6th (according to the Julian calendar) to be the new January 6th (according to the Gregorian calendar), celebrated Epiphany yesterday.

For the Catholic community, the Three Kings is the January 6th celebration for the group of three foreigners who traveled to see the newborn Jesus and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. According to this tradition, unlike other Catholic countries, in Spain people receive their Christmas gifts on this day, rather than on December 25th. Interestingly, the Orthodox calendar does not have a special feast day for the visit of the Magi, as the Three Kings are also called. Instead, their visit to the infant Jesus is celebrated together with the Nativity or with the Epiphany.

Without the historical background, the concurrence of all of these holidays the same days can be confusing. The above explanations are surely oversimplified, but hopefully, give an idea of how and why these feast days get celebrated on such different dates throughout the Christian world.

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One thought on “Merry Christmas, Happy Epiphany, Happy Three Kings!

  1. Epiphania (Gk. translit) = “revelation, to bring to the surface” while Theophania (Gk. translit) = “manifestation of God”. That’s the first difference. One of emphasis. Both point to the Holy Trinity, but in different ways.

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