Christians around the world marked the holiday of Epiphany on Friday with parades, toy distributions, and local water traditions — a way of welcoming the Magi to Bethlehem following their journey to visit the baby Jesus.
Epiphany is traditionally observed in the Western churches on January 6 — the twelfth day of Christmas — and in some Orthodox churches that adopted the Gregorian calendar and thus celebrate Christmas on December 25. This year, Orthodox churches maintaining the Julian calendar, most prominently the Russian Orthodox Church, will celebrate Christmas on January 7, meaning they will observe Christmas Eve as other Christian churches celebrate Epiphany.
The holiday is often referred to as Three Kings Day as most Christian traditions list three Magi – Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior – visiting the baby. The Gospels do not explicitly state only three Magi approached the manger following Jesus’s birth, however, or that they were, in a political sense, kings ruling over any particular territory. Orthodox churches also associate the holiday instead with the revelation that Jesus is the son of God, or of his baptism.
At the Vatican, the Catholic Church observed the traditional arrival of the Magi with gifts, presented to the large nativity display in the heart of St. Peter’s Square.
The Kings have arrived at the #Vatican crib. Happy #Epiphany pic.twitter.com/WA5sbaoXzE
— Eamon Martin (@ArchbishopEamon) January 5, 2023
Pope Francis offered a homily urging the faithful to “fall down and entrust ourselves to God in the wonder of worship,” just as the legendary kings traveled from what many believe to be modern Iran to Bethlehem, following a star they believed would lead them to their lord.
“Let us worship God, not ourselves; let us worship God and not the false idols that seduce by the allure of prestige and power … let us love God and not bow down before passing things and evil thoughts, seductive yet hollow and empty,” Pope Francis said.
The pope used the opportunity to also honor the recently departed former pope Benedict XVI.
“Benedict XVI said of the Magi: ‘Their outward pilgrimage was the expression of their inward journey, the inner pilgrimage of their hearts,’” he recalled.
Outside of the Vatican, Epiphany is a day of effusive revelry for many Christians. In much of the Spanish-speaking world, Epiphany is more commonly referred to as “Three Kings Day” and marks the arrival of the Magi to Jesus’s manger, carrying the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Many Christians choose to distribute gifts to children on January 6 instead of Christmas in honor of the gifts to the baby Jesus.
Madrid, Spain, is home to one of the world’s largest, brightest Epiphany parades, known in Spanish as the “Cavalcade of the Kings.” After two years of subdue celebrations as a result of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, the 2023 Cavalcade featured large crowds of children gathered to observe elaborately lit parade floats and welcome the Magi to the capital. Estimates suggest thousands of families crowded the streets of Madrid to greet the Three Wise Men. The parade was held on Thursday night.
Similar Cavalcades were held throughout Spain. In the town of Logroño, Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar made a dramatic entrance via helicopter to great applause.
In Mexico, the tradition of giving presents to children and the consumption of what is known in English as the “king cake,” a tradition shared with France and parts of Louisiana, predominates. The Mexican television broadcaster TV Azteca claims to organize the world’s largest toy distribution event for the occasion, the Jugueton, using (clean) garbage trucks to distribute toys nationwide.
The tradition of gift-giving for children is so strong in Mexico that drug cartels have, in past year, coopted it, using their proceeds to organize parties and distribute presents to children in the communities in which they operate.
The Orthodox churches that celebrate Epiphany tend to focus less on gifts for children – and not particularly on the Magi – and more on traditions involving water. Greek Orthodox Christians have maintained the tradition throughout the country of tossing a cross into local bodies of water, then having young men dive to find it. The man who pulls the cross out of the water is said to be especially blessed by God for the year.
This year marked the first since the pandemic that Greeks were allowed to celebrate Epiphany dives without coronavirus restrictions. Greeks celebrated in past years, anyway, however – in 2021, the government relented and opened churches after mass defiance of civil liberty restrictions. According to the newspaper Kathimerini, warm weather for January also aided in bringing out crowds for the celebrations.
Kathimerini noted that the tradition of diving for a cross is so popular in the port of Piraeus that “a cross is traditionally thrown three times, to accommodate the throngs of swimmers.”
The Greek newspaper Ta Nea highlighted the winner of the dive this year in the town of Halkidiki, 20-year-old Giorgos Soulis, who dedicated his participation in the tradition to past participant Giannis Damianos. Damianos, 24, participated in the 2021 event in honor of his cancer-stricken brother, but suffered a severe neck injury that left him temporarily in a coma and ultimately wheelchair-bound.
Outside of Greece, the largest such Greek celebration occurs in Tarpon Springs, Florida. This year, Tarpon Springs hosted its 117th Epiphany Celebration and cross dive.
A version of the cross tradition was also held on Friday in Kalofer, Bulgaria, where throngs of men playing bagpipes jumped into the Tundzha River to perform traditional dances in addition to retrieving the cross.
In Pietrosani, Romania, locals celebrate Epiphany with a horse race featuring elaborate outfits for the steeds and large throngs cheering on the racers. Priests bless the horses with holy water before they run.
“An Orthodox priest arrives in a horse drawn carriage after midday amid the cheers of spectators and starts sprinkling holy water on animals and owners rotating around his carriage in a chaotic and very noisy procession. Villagers then compete in the bareback race, wearing no protective gear at all,” the Associated Press explained on Friday.
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