The Feast of the Epiphany, marking the end of the 12 Days of Christmas, is generally observed on Friday, Jan. 6, 2012.
Epiphany -- which is variously known as Theophany, Three Kings Day and El Dia de los Tres Reyes -- is a Christian celebration of the revelation of the birth of Jesus to the wider world. This is embodied most in the story of three wise men visiting a newborn Jesus with gifts, found in the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12.
In this story, Magi (wise men) from the east follow a star to Jerusalem, where they ask the presiding king, Herod, what he knows about a newly born "King of the Jews." This sounds like a challenge to Herod, who gathers his priests to learn where and who is this king. They relay a prophecy that Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and Herod sends the Magi there, saying: "Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." The wise men -- Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar -- eventually find Mary and her son, Jesus, to whom they bow and worship. The Magi give Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and then return home, for a dream told them to bypass Herod.
While Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity focuses on the story of the Magi, Eastern Christians, like the Greek Orthodox, celebrate the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany and consider the day to be more important than Christmas.
Traditionally, Epiphany is observed by blessing the home (recalling the Magi's visit to Jesus' family), blessing water (especially the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized), exchanging gifts, performing "Magi plays" (to tell the story of Jesus' childhood) and feasting, most notably on a "King Cake."
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