The Christian celebration of Epiphany appeared around the 2-3rd centuries, incorporating various traditions and beliefs of the pre-Christian feasts and rituals related to the period after winter solstice. In the ancient times, such celebrations, like many other feasts during the year, were dedicated to Nature, fertility and harvest. People imagined that in this period, Nature, exhausted and dried after the severe winter, prepared itself to be reborn for a new season. To accompany nature in this transformation and assure the fertility of the earth and future harvest, people practiced rituals, such as symbolic burning of a figure representing the “old nature”, worship of deities associated with vegetation and fertility, blessing of the earth with water or ashes and some others. Such practices were spread almost in all pre-Christian Europe.
The early Christian celebration of Epiphany dates back to the 2-3rd centuries, in Egypt. Originally, Epiphany was a commemoration of the Nativity of Christ and related events, adoration of Magi and Baptism of Christ in the Jordan river. In the 5th century the Church introduced the separated celebration of the Nativity on December 25, the feast we know today as Christmas. Only the Armenian Apostolic Church continues to celebrate January 6 as the original feast of the Nativity, adoration and Baptism.
In the Middle Ages a renewed meaning was attributed to the feast: the revelation of God the Son as a human being. It became also called “Theophany” (“vision of God” in Greek) or “Manifestatio” (“manifestation” in Latin).
In the Catholic tradition, gradually the adoration of Magi became the centre of the feast, symbolizing Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Hebrew, recognized by the respectful foreign visitors, the wise men or the Magi. The scene is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew: in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, following the rising star to reach the newborn king of Jews, that is Jesus Christ, and to pay Him homage. King Herod, frightened to lose his throne due to the old prophecy, sent them secretly to Bethlehem asking to let him know if they find the Child. The wise men set out and followed the star, that finally stopped over the place where the Child was. Overwhelmed with joy, the men saw the Child with Mary His mother, knelt down, paying Him homage and then offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they travelled back to their country by a different route.
Painting: Adoration of the Magi. Author: Andrea Mantegna. 1500.
Taken from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/andrea-mantegna/adoration-of-the-magi-1500
Following the Crusades of the 12-13th centuries, that brought stories about the fabulous Orient, the fascination of Magi grew with a new power. In fact, in the Catholic tradition, these Biblical figures assumed much more important roles the in the Orthodox one. The Magi were considered the Three Kings and numerous legends revealed their names and origin. Besides, the tradition of gift-giving on Epiphany became widely spread, recalling the gifts brought by the Magi to the Christ Child. The episode of the Baptism of Christ was separated from January 6, and is usually commemorated on Sunday following the Epiphany.
In the Orthodox church Epiphany is centred around the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river, and is usually called so. According to the Gospels, John the Baptist was preaching for repentance for the remission of sins and encouraged the giving of alms to the poor as he baptized people in the area of the Jordan river. As John had been foretelling, Jesus came to be baptized by him. In the baptismal scene, after Jesus had emerged from the water, the sky opened and a voice from Heaven stated: "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased". The Holy Spirit then descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
This episode is considered the manifestation of Christ as the Son of God, and also one of the rare visions of God to the humanity in the completeness of the Trinity: God the Father spoke through the clouds, God the Son was baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit was represented by a dove descending from the heaven. The episode of adoration of the Magi is remembered by the Orthodox on Christmas Day, as one of the events related to the Nativity.
Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry: The Baptism of Christ. Between 1485 and 1486, located at Musée Condé
Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Folio_109v_-_The_Baptism_of_Christ.jpg