This is an article I wrote for an online service (now defunct) circa 2006.
Epiphany: A bright thought and the real end of Christmas
Every year as Christmas approaches, it’s anticipated by many with excitement, yet fills some with anxiety. Potential stressors can include being thrown together with relatives that grate, dealing with the drudge of shopping, or just enduring non-stop Christmas music.
But whether you love or loathe Christmas, nearly everyone wants to know when it’s over.
Oh, you thought December 26th was it? Nope. The official last day of Christmas is traditionally January 6th, which is called Epiphany.
However, the word and the day, Epiphany, hold a variety of nuanced meanings. Here are a few abbreviated tidbits that may just be enlightening on the topic.
One of the meanings of the word of epiphany is "a shining forth." The word initially referred to divine manifestations. However, over time, it also came to mean "a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something."
Frank Maier, a journalist, wrote that he, "experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself." Usually the term as used in this sense is tied most closely to Irish novelist James Joyce.
Joyce is credited with first using the term in his novel, Stephen Hero, which was a precursor to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He also used the term in Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus muses, "Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?"
For Joyce and others who use the word in this sense, it points to those often unanticipated and startling moments when something suddenly crashes into our consciousness with intense clarity. These moments often have a sense of spirituality about them which leads us to additional meanings of the word epiphany.
On the thirteenth day of Christmas
I had a tiny epiphany one year when it dawned on me that I had managed to get through the entire Christmas season without once hearing "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...." Amazing, eh!
Epiphany, January 6th, actually marks the true end of Christmas. The 12th day of Christmas is the day before Epiphany.
Some people leave their Christmas tree up until Epiphany, when, traditionally, it is supposed to be taken down and burned, or at least recycled.
All those other gifts accumulated from your "true love?" They can now be returned, put to work, shooed away, auctioned on eBay, or eaten.
Wee Three Kings a caroling
Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day (or Festival of the Three Kings, or Adoration of the Magi), especially among Hispanic faithful. It is viewed as the traditional day when the three Wisemen visited the baby Jesus and also celebrates the Christmas star that guided them.
For some, Three Kings Day is as big or bigger than Christmas and involves even more gift-giving and great holiday food.
In Bavaria, there is said to be a custom called "Star Singers," where, from New Year's through January 6th, children dress as the three kings, go door to door caroling while holding up a large star. They are greeted at each home with money or treats, the money usually being given to charities.
Emmanuel means God with us
According to The Christian Sourcebook (Ballantine, 1986), "Epiphany began in the Eastern Orthodox Church -- perhaps as early as the third century -- and originally was a celebration of Christ's birth. In the fourth century, however, December 25 was declared Christmas, and Epiphany took on its current significance. Although Epiphany falls on January 6th, it is often observed on the first Sunday after the New Year."
The word epiphany derives from the Greek word for "appearance" or "manifestation," as means as well "a shining forth."
So, when it comes to the word epiphany, the day marks the end of Christmas, while the exclamation marks the dawning of a bright thought or realization.