The action in Epiphany takes place over the winter of 1811, incorporating Christmastide and, you guessed it, Epiphany. Other than adhering to the dates of the Christian calendar, as Austen herself did, there is no strong religious theme in the story; the title is instead derived from the felicitous double meaning of the word and the timing of the story. But what is Epiphany, and how is it celebrated?
Historically, and certainly in literature, Twelfth Night has often been the more familiar celebration. In most branches of Christianity (though not all) it is celebrated on 5th January, the twelfth and last day of Christmas—the first being Christmas Day. The day is so well known that even in some modern secular cultures, it marks the end of the holiday season and the customary ‘deadline’ for taking down one’s festive decorations.
In Regency England, worshipping in church was a more universally observed practice than it is today, and most families would likely have attended some form of service to mark the occasion. Nevertheless, when it came to celebrating Twelfth Night, those eighteenth and nineteenth century party animals did not neglect their social obligations. Extravagant balls, often masquerades, were de rigueur for those who could afford them. Wassail punch (mulled cider) was traditionally consumed, wassailing (similar to modern day carolling) was conducted, plays were performed, and games were played.
It was a spectacular end to the festive season, but Twelfth Night is also occasionally referred to as Epiphany Eve, because for those in the church, there is another significant event the following day. Epiphany, observed by many on 6th January, celebrates the presentation of the infant Jesus to the Magi (or the Three Wise Men as those of us more conversant with Christmas Carols than Scripture might better know them). For this reason, it is also sometimes referred to as Three Kings’ Day.
There are many fascinating ways in which it is observed around the world. Some people use chalk to mark their door with a pattern representing the three Magi, which is believed to bless their home. Taking a dip in a freezing lake or river (known as “Winter Swimming”) is traditional in some places. In others, children—Epiphany Singers—go carolling bearing a star on a stick to represent the star of Bethlehem. In Spain, children in the Christian faith leave out drinks for the Three Kings the night before Epiphany, just as in England they might leave out a mince pie and a glass of sherry for Father Christmas on Christmas Eve.
There are a number of carols associated with Epiphany, but perhaps one of the most well-known is, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” which I challenge anyone who went to school in England in the 80’s not to have sung in a Christmas play at least once! Epiphany also used to be a day for playing pranks on each other, in the same way we do nowadays on April Fool’s Day. In some countries, gifts are given on Epiphany, to represent the gold, frankincense and myrrh given to the infant Jesus by the Magi. I have a particular fondness for an Irish tradition I read about, wherein women get the day of Epiphany off, and the men do all the housework and cooking.
Much like Christmas Day itself, Epiphany is considered a feast day. Historically, foods were made that gave a nod to the costly spices presented by the Magi, so mulled wines, spiced ales, and ginger biscuits we popular choices. Jam tarts made in star shapes and called Epiphany tarts were also eaten. Probably the most recognisable treat was the Twelfth Cake, which though it came to be more commonly eaten on Twelfth Night, was traditionally made on 5th January and not eaten until Epiphany. It was a fruitcake, much like a modern Christmas cake, and in the Regency era would have been elaborately decorated with sugar work. It was often baked with various items inside, each with its own significance. The number of items and their meanings varies from country to country, but the most common was a dried bean. Whoever discovered the bean in their slice of cake was crowned King for the day, even if they were a servant. Other items that were occasionally used include a dried pea, which would make someone the queen, a clove for a villain, a twig for a fool, and a piece of cloth for a hussy!
Separately to religion, most of us are probably conversant with another use for the word ‘Epiphany.’ The word itself derives from the Greek for ‘manifestation,’ and given that the religious tradition celebrates the baby Jesus being revealed to the Magi, it is little surprise that the word has also come to mean ‘revelation.’ Moments of realisation, when one ‘sees the light’ or ‘has the blinkers removed,’ are often described as epiphanies. It won’t astonish anyone to hear that ‘the penny drops’ for more than one character in Epiphany!