How I learned to love the beautiful customs of Epiphany

People in Krakow, Poland, take part in the Three Kings Day Parade (CNS)

Is it too late to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany? I ask this because in the Western (Latin) Church we actually celebrated it yesterday while today I have come across a book, Nazareth Family Spirituality by Catherine Doherty, founder of Madonna House, edited by Fr Blair Bernard, with a chapter on “Epiphany Customs and Blessings”. I am annoyed with myself for not knowing about them. Indeed, I have irrationally resented the Orthodox Church for somehow “appropriating” this great feast, while we in the West often take it as the day simply to clear up after Christmas.

Fr Bernard notes that the Epiphany celebration emerged from the Church in Egypt, not Rome. He adds that the Roman Church emphasises the adoration of the Magi while the Eastern Churches stress the baptism of Jesus. They celebrate the “Blessing of the Waters”, a ceremony involving prayer and throwing a cross into a body of water on this day.

A coffee cake, round and decorated like a king’s crown, may be served at the Epiphany, with three shiny coins hidden in it. When someone gets a piece with a coin, it means they will take an hour of prayer, if possible before the Blessed Sacrament, to ask God’s blessing on the whole family.

Idly looking at Facebook yesterday (not a very spiritual activity), I noticed that several people posted about writing with chalk on their doorposts. Thinking these were merely archaic rituals, practised by antiquarians with a penchant for the past, I avoided them. Now I read in Catherine Doherty’s book that it is a common practice in Eastern Europe: a piece of chalk is blessed, then used to make an inscription on the lintel of the front door, with the current year’s dates, the initials of the three Magi (C, M and B for Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar), interspersed with small crosses.

The author recalls that in Russia people used to make enormous stars and put them over their “isbas” (log cabins). She also describes the custom followed at Madonna House, where three men dressed as “kings” move from table to table in the dining room with trays of brightly coloured cards in the shape of crowns or stars with a word or phrase on them. People pick out a card with a particular virtue or quality of soul inscribed on it and “throughout the remainder of the year, the recipients are to exercise their particular gifts in the practical work of daily living.”

I mention all this to highlight my own ignorance and to resolve to observe not just the formal liturgy for Epiphany in future, but also the small, symbolic and beautiful customs associated with it.