Today is the Epiphany, a feast once celebrated with grandeur and joy. Let us revive Epiphany celebrations; let us restore Catholic culture in our homes and in our families. To learn about the history of Catholic Epiphany customs, I am posting the following Epiphany-related text from the French priest and Benedictine monk, Dom Prosper Gueranger (b. 1805- d. 1875):
Theodosius, Charlemagne, our own Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor, Stephen of Hungary, the Emperor Henry 2nd, Ferdinand of Castile, Louis 9th of France, are examples of Kings who had a special devotion to the Feast of the Epiphany. Their ambition was to go, in company with the Magi, to the feet of the Divine Infant, and offer him their gifts. At the English Court, the custom is still retained, and the reigning Sovereign offers an ingot of Gold as a tribute of homage to Jesus the King of kings: the ingot is afterwards redeemed by a certain sum of money.
But this custom of imitating the Three Kings in their mystic gifts was not confined to Courts. In the Middle-Ages, the Faithful used to present, on the Epiphany, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to be blessed by the Priest. These tokens of their devoutness to Jesus were kept as pledges of God’s blessing upon their houses and families. The practice is still observed in some parts of Germany: and the prayer for the Blessing was in the Roman Ritual, until Pope Paul 5th suppressed it, together with several others, as being seldom required by the Faithful.
There was another custom, which originated in the Ages of Faith, and which is still observed in many countries. In honor of the Three Kings, who came from the East to adore the Babe of Bethlehem, each family chose one of its members to be King. The choice was thus made. The family kept a feast, which was an allusion to the third of the Epiphany-Mysteries – the Feast of Cana in Galilee – a Cake was served up, and he who took the piece which had a certain secret mark, was proclaimed the King of the day. Two portions of the cake were reserved for the poor, in whom honor was thus paid to the Infant Jesus and his Blessed Mother; for, on this Day of the triumph of Him, who, though King, was humble and poor, it was fitting that the poor should have a share in the general joy. The happiness of home was here, as in so many other instances, blended with the sacredness of Religion. This custom of Kings’ Feast brought relations and friends together, and encouraged feelings of kindness and charity. Human weakness would sometimes, perhaps, show itself during these hours of holiday-making; but the idea and sentiment and spirit of the whole feast was profoundly Catholic, and that was sufficient guarantee to innocence.
Kings’ Feast is still a Christmas joy in thousands of families; and happy those where it is kept in the Christian spirit which first originated it! For the last three hundred years, a puritanical zeal has decried these simple customs, wherein the seriousness of religion and the home enjoyments of certain Festivals were blended together. The traditions of Christian family rejoicings have been blamed under pretexts of abuse; as though a recreation, in which religion had no share and no influence, were less open to intemperance and sin. Others have pretended, (though with little or no foundation,) that the Twelfth Cake and the custom of choosing a King, are mere imitations of the ancient pagan Saturnalia. Granting this to be correct, (which it is not,) we would answer, that many of the old pagan customs have undergone a Christian transformation, and no one thinks of refusing to accept them thus purified. All this mistaken zeal has produced the sad effect of divorcing the Church from family life and customs, of excluding every religious manifestation from our traditions, and of bringing about what is so pompously called, (though the word is expressive enough,) the secularization of society.
But let us return to the triumph of our sweet Savior and King. His magnificence is manifested to us so brightly on this Feast! Our mother, the Church, is going to initiate us into the mysteries we are to celebrate. Let us imitate the faith and obedience of the Magi: let us adore, with the holy Baptist, the divine Lamb, over whom the heavens open: let us take our place at the mystic feast of Cana, where our dear King is present, thrice manifested, thrice glorified. In the last two mysteries, let us not lose sight of the Babe of Bethlehem; and in the Babe of Bethlehem let us cease not to recognize the Great God, (in whom the Father was well-pleased,) and the supreme Ruler and Creator of all things.
~from Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, Epiphany
For further reading, and a summation of other Epiphany related customs (including the Epiphany house blessing), you might wish to read the Fish Eaters Epiphany entry.
May you have a blessed and joyful Epiphany!
~Top image: source
~Dom Prosper image, source