From the Greek epiphania, or manifestation. Celebrated in both Eastern and Western churches on January 6, Epiphany marks a number of important appearances or manifestations: the arrival of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, the miracle at Cana and the Feeding of the 5000.
Its first appearance seems to have been in the second century A.D. among the Basilidean heretics of Alexandria who believed that Jesus did not become divine until his baptism which they claim had taken place on January 6. Though this idea of a late-acquired divinity was rejected by orthodox Christianity, some churches seem to have used the date to celebrate Christ’s earthly birth — an epiphany of a different kind. When in the fourth century Rome adopted December 25 as the day to celebrate the Nativity the Western churches’ Epiphany emphasis shifted to focus on the Magi while in the East strees was placed on the baptism. The period between these two important holy dates became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Epiphany became an official holiday in the Eastern Roman Empire, marked by a ban on chariot racing and attending games in the arena and by ceremonies of blessing the waters. At these ceremonies the emperor would drink the waters three times to the cry of “The emperor drinks!” The blessing of the waters takes place even today in Orthodox denominations. A priest will bless a body of water, either inside, or by a lake, river or sea and the faithful take it home where it will be used to sprinkle on houses, barns and fields to ensure prosperity for the coming year. In some places the priest will throw a cross into the water and divers will race to be the one to recover it.
In the West Epiphany was a day to celebrate the visitation of the Magi or the Three Kings as they became known. Religious services honouring the Magi gradually turned into dramas held outside of the church such as The Play of Herod. As returning Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought back stories of the fabulous east, fascination with the Magi grew — cities held processions honouring the Kings and carols retelling their journeys were sung. (The remnants of these customs are the Star Boys and their January pilgrimages from door to door.) Epiphany came to be a time all across Europe for popular celebrations marked by eating a cake and gift-giving.