The Tudor Society

The Feast of the Epiphany – 6th January


Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Today is the feast day of the Epiphany, a commemoration and celebration of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.

Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 2) tells of how Magi from the East visited King Herod and asked "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." Herod asked his chief priests and lawyers if they knew and they replied that according to the prophet it was "In Bethlehem in Judea". Herod told the Magi and asked them to report back to him when they had found the child. The Magi set out on their journey, found the star and visited Mary and her child:

"They bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh."

However, they did not return to Herod to report back to him because a dream had warned them not to do so, instead they returned home by a different route.

Epiphany brings the Twelve Days of Christmas to a close and in Tudor times it was a time for feasting and revelry before life got back to normal after Christmas. People would feast on sumptuous foods and then share Twelfth Night Cake. Inside this cake was hidden a dried pea, or bean, and the person who found the bean/pea in their slice of cake became the Lord of Misrule, or King, at the feast. Games were played, carols were sung and people also went wassailing to spread goodwill throughout their community. Robert Herrick, the 17th century poet, wrote of the celebrations in his poem "Twelfe Night":

Now, now the mirth comes,
With the cake full of plums,
Where Bean's the king of the sport here;
Besides we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
and let not a man then be seen here,
Who, unurg'd, will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and queen here.

Next crown the bowl full
With the gentle lamb's-wool
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king
And queen wassailing;
And, though with ale ye be wet here,
Yet part ye from hence
As free from offense,
As when ye innocent met here.

A.H. Bullen, in "A Christmas garland; carols and poems from the fifteenth century to the present time" (1885), writes "A bean and pea were enclosed in the Twelfth-cake. When the cake was divided, he who got the slice containing the bean was king of the feast, and the girl to whose lot the pea fell was queen", so there were obviously variations of the tradition.

In Spain today, where I now live, we have a Twelfth Night cake, here it is called a Roscón de Reyes (Kings' Cake). In the one we're enjoying today, there are two objects hidden in the cream filling: a bean and a king. The instructions included with the cake explain that the person who finds the bean has to pay for the cake and the person who finds the king is crowned King of Epiphany and must wear the paper crown that is included with the cake. The person crowned king will enjoy good luck for the rest of the year.

Roscon de Reyes

Roscon de Reyes

Here in Spain we also celebrate Twelfth Night or Epiphany eve. Last night, the Three Kings visited our village on the back of a truck and the villagers processed behind the truck collecting sweets thrown out into the street by the Kings and their servants. It's advisable to wear a hat as the boiled sweets can give you quite a sore head! We all process to the village theatre where the children's names are then called out as presents are distributed by the Kings. It is a wonderful event. Everyone then goes home and waits for the Kings to visit their homes while they are sleeping, to leave even more presents. Naughty children might only get coal though!

Kings Day

Notes and Sources

There are 7 comments Go To Comment

  1. c

    And here in the US, we have King Cake at Mardi Gras. Whoever gets the baby ( a metal charm baked into the ring cake that is frosted in purple, green and gold) hosts next year’s party! I am sure that in New Orleans, there are other variations!

    1. C - Post Author

      I didn’t know that tradition so thanks for letting me know, how interesting!

  2. j

    Today is my birthday! ! Woohoo! I love your site!

    1. C - Post Author

      Thank you and happy birthday to you, have a wonderful day!

      1. j

        Thanks! I just bought myself a plastic princess crown! LOL

        1. C - Post Author

          Ha! I hope it made you feel royal!

  3. R

    King James I and Vi had as a young King in Scotland a very strict Calvanist teacher who cared not for feast days. One day the teenage James asked could he have the day of and met with a stern rebuke. How dare he ask for a feast day? But it was not a saints day but the Epiphany of Our Lord. Epiphany was it and where had young James learned of this? James replied that it was in the gospel and was marked by the Magi coming to adore the infant Jesus. Oh, his teacher asked and what does the Epiphany mean? James replied that it meant The Revealing and was when Christ was revealed to the world as the Messiah. His tutor was impressed with his charge and relented, giving him the day off. I don’t know the actual source of the story but it was told in a documentary on the history of the original King James Bible. It sounds like the intellectual James, but here he is, just a teen wanting a day of. The Feast of the Epiphany came to have special meaning for James I and is of course just that, The Revealing of Christ to the world.

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The Feast of the Epiphany – 6th January