Sternsinger in Vienna, Austria. Photo on public domain.
Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sternsinger.jpg
Iceland. In Iceland Epiphany is called “The Thirteenth Day”, as feast closing the Christmas period. The celebrations are held around bonfires with fireworks, people sing accompanied, by belief, by elves, giants and other mythological creatures, and greet the 13th Yuleman, the last of the traditional Christmas period figures, who is going back home.
Ireland. In Ireland Epiphany is often called “Little Christmas” or “Women's Christmas”. In some regions there is still a tradition that for this day the Irish men take on all the household duties, while women hold parties or go out to celebrate with their female relatives and friends. In the past, women organized special high tea gatherings. Children prepare usually some presents for their mothers and grandmothers.
Traditionally, people lit twelve candles on this day, in the memory of twelve apostles. To mark the end of the Christmas season, the sprigs of festive holly are burnt in the fireplace.
Wales. The Welsh prepare a traditional feast cake, putting a ring inside, which would define the symbolical king or queen for the day. The cake is divided initially in three parts, representing Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Magi.
People gather in groups for wassailing, a kind of caroling, to wish farmers a good harvest in the coming year. For the same purpose, in the past, the farmers held a ritual of collecting the Yule log’s ashes, to put them into the ground together with the seeds when planting them.
A special custom was Hunting of the Wren, a typical small bird. A group of young men would go out to capture a wren, would put it then into a decorated cage and carry it around from house to house, receiving small coins and some food from the masters of the house.
England. In England the feast is called usually “The Twelfth Night”, defining the end of the Christmastide. People prepare a special “Twelfth Cake” for Epiphany, which is a rich and dense fruitcake with a bean and sometimes other symbolical objects baked inside. In general, all spicy products and drinks are considered appropriate for this feast, recalling the spices brought by the Magi from the Orient. Another typical Epiphany sweet in England are jam tarts, made in the shape of six-point stars. The celebrations include, among all, various representations, plays and a ritual parade with the Holly Man, a traditional figure of the London Christmastide celebrations.
Finland. The Finnish have a special tradition related to the typical spiced Epiphany sweets, piparkakut, the spiced biscuits made in the shape of stars. The cookie should be broken in the palm of one’s hand while making a silent wish. If the piparkakut breaks into three pieces, and the person eats all of them without speaking a word, the wish is believed to come true.
Latvia. In Latvia the feast is known as “The Three Kings’ Day” or “The Star Day”, recalling the custom of star singing and the Star of Bethlehem. During the star singing, groups of children travel from house to house with auspicious songs, and receive some sweets in exchange.
Also the house blessings are spread in Latvia, while young women take the chance to make divinations about the future. For example, if the girl hears a dog barking on Epiphany, she is believed to find her future spouse in the same direction.
The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria. In these countries folks commemorate the Three Kings on Epiphany. Children gather in groups of three (representing the Magi) and in costumes travel from house to house singing traditional songs and receiving some coins or sweets in exchange. They usually carry paper lanterns symbolizing the prophetic star. In Germany such groups are called “Sternsinger” (star singers).
The traditional German sweet for Epiphany is the Three Kings cake, a ring-shaped golden pastry filled with orange and spice representing the three gifts of the Magi. Like in many countries of Central Europe, in Germany the priests bless the houses with the consecrated water and inscribe with the chalk the letters C+M+B symbolizing the names of the Kings, or the initials of the Latin phrase "Christus mansionem benedicat" ("Christ bless this house").
France. The traditional festive sweet in France is “Galette des rois” (Kings’ cake), a soft flat cake symbolizing the sun by its round shape. It has usually a porcelain or earthenware figurine, or a bean baked inside. By an old tradition, whoever finds the figurine or the bean becomes the “king” (or “queen”) for the day. In the past, such cake was divided into as many slices as there were people at the table, and one slice extra in case a stranger or a poor person would visit the house. This extra portion was called “the slice of God”.
Spain, Portugal. In Spain the feast of Epiphany is very tightly connected with the Three Kings. Various celebrations and representations are organized in their honour, and they are usual gift-givers on Epiphany for the Spanish children. They believe that the Magi come from the Orient on the Epiphany’s Eve, and leave little gifts or sweets for the good children. Beforehand, children write their letters to the Magi, in which they tell about their behaviour during the year, express their wishes for the New Year and for the gifts they would like to receive. Such letters are delivered then personally to the Three Kings, during a representation, sent by e-mail, or left for the night under the Christmas tree or near children’s shoes. They would also leave a glass of water for the Magi’s camels and some food for the visitors. The Three Kings are supposed to come by night, take the letters and leave the presents near the shoes. For those who behaved in a bad way the Kings leave some coal as a hint that a child should change. Today, such “coal” is usually made of sugar.
In Spain and in Portugal the traditional ring-shaped cake is called “Roscón de reyes” or “Bolo-rei”, and it contains both a small figurine of the Child Jesus and a dry broad bean. The presence of Christ’s figurine in the sweet would represent the flight of Jesus to Egypt, escaping from King Herod's evil plan to kill all babies that could be the prophesied messiah. Traditionally, the one who gets the figurine is crowned as the "king" or "queen" of the banquet, but whoever gets the bean has to pay back the value of the cake to the person who had bought it, or to buy the next year’s cake.
In Portugal Epiphany is the time of performing the traditional dances, among which is “Dança dos paulitos” (“dance of sticks”). The dance is performed by eight men in traditional costumes who hit two sticks to the rhythm of the music.
Italy. The Italians celebrate Epiphany with the tradition of Befana, a special gift-giver to children. According to the belief, she comes on the feast’s eve bringing gifts to the good children and “punishing” with coal, garlic or onions the mischievous ones. Children avoid seeing her because Befana would thump the curious with her broomstick. Often in the evening they leave for her a plate with an orange or a mandarin, and a glass of wine, and in the morning next to the present they would find the remains of the eaten fruit and an imprint of Befana’s hand on the ashes sprinkled on the plate.
In the past, there was a ritual of burning a piece of wood representing the old and dried “Mother Nature”, to open the way to its spring rebirth. In some regions there is also a tradition to make gifts among adults, especially to the beloved ones.
Poland. In Poland special big parades are held on Epiphany, to commemorate the coming of the Magi, featuring the Three Kings who pass out sweets, children in the Renaissance clothing and other figures. The traditions of star singing, nativity and adoration representations and house blessings are followed. The Poles bring to church small boxes containing some chalk, a gold ring, an incense and a piece of amber, blessing them in honour of the Magi’s gifts to Christ.
The traditional Polish Three Kings cake contains a coin or an almond inside, to define the person who will become the king or the queen for this day. They believe also, this person will be also very lucky during the year.
Hungary. In Hungary January 6 marks the end of Christmastide, as well as the beginning of the carnival season. To commemorate the visit of the three wise men to Christ Child, in Hungarian folk tradition, young boys would dress up as the kings, with decorated pointy hats and a star in hands, and would go in groups from house to house, enacting a Three Kings play, called “háromkirályok”.
Also the Baptism of Jesus is remembered on this day, marked by an old tradition to consecrate water on Epiphany, which is believed to possess miraculous powers of healing and protecting from the evil. On this day, the blessing of the homes takes place, when the priest sprinkles the doorways with the holy water and writes with chalk the letters with crosses above the doors: G+M+B, which are supposed to refer to the initials of the Three Kings.