O God, of Whose mercies there is no number, and of Whose goodness the treasure is inﬁnite: we render thanks to Thy most gracious Majesty for the gifts Thou hast bestowed upon us, always beseeching Thy clemency; that as Thou grantest the petitions of them that ask Thee, Thou wilt never forsake them, but wilt prepare them for the greater rewards that still await them. Through Christ Our Lord, amen.
(The Final Prayer from the Solemn Blessing of Epiphany Water on January 5th).
Continuing the previous article which highlighted some of the forgotten customs and traditions of Christmas, we now turn to the remainder of the Christmas Season which is more specifically known as Epiphanytide.
For those Catholics committed to the Sacred Traditions of the past, Epiphanytide is a special period of time in the liturgical year. Instead of having Christmastide turn into some oddly name “Ordinary Time,” traditional Catholics will celebrate Christmastide, Epiphanytide, Septuagesima, and then finally begin the penance of Lent. Epiphanytide commences on January 6th and traditionally had a vigil – one of the four principal vigils of the entire liturgical year.
The Blessing of Epiphany Water on January 5
The Vigil of the Epiphany is the traditional day for priests to bless Epiphany water. This tradition, which is older in the Eastern Rites than in the Roman Rite, involves a beautiful and long ceremonial. Click here to read the history and prayers. Ask your priest to offer this blessing this year.
Blessing of Homes & Chalk on January 6
The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th is a culmination for the Christmas season and one of the major Christian feastdays in the entire Church year. It was a Holy Day of Obligation in the United States until 1885.
Epiphany Day is the day in many countries – primarily Hispanic ones – when Christmas gifts are exchanged in honor of the day’s commemoration of the arrival of the Wisemen. The Epiphany simultaneously recalls the arrival of the Wisemen to worship the Child Christ, our Lord’s Baptism at age 30, and His first public miracle in Cana.
Chalk is customarily blessed on January 6 by a priest using the Rituale Romanum, though nowadays typically only done by more traditional parishes. The chalk is a sacramental, intended for the blessings of homes. It may only be blessed by a priest.
Along with the blessing of chalk is the blessing of one’s home on the Feast of the Epiphany or in the days immediately afterward. If a priest is unable to visit your home at this season, a simple blessing may be given by the father of the family using the blessed chalk. For the full blessing of homes to be said as part of this custom, click here.
Whether said by a priest or the father of the family, he should mark the year and the initials of the three Magi (Caspar, Melchoir and Balthasar) on the lintel of the main door using the blessed chalk. The initials C, M, and B also stand for Christus mansionem benedicat (May Christ bless the house). This is the example for the year 2022): 20 + C + M + B + 22
The Twice a Year Venetian Tradition
Fisheaters shares some of the great regional customs for this Feast Day:
Something else wonderful happens in Italy on the Feast of the Ascension and the days following: in Venice, there is a clock tower in the Piazza San Marco. This marvelous clock, made in A.D. 1499 (and recently restored) indicates not only the minutes and hours, but the days, months, Zodiacal signs, and phases of the Moon as well. At the top of the tower are two large figures known as the Moors (“Mori”), who signal the hour by striking a large bell. Underneath them is a large, golden lion – the symbol of St. Mark, patron of Venice. Underneath this is a niche which holds a figure of Our Lady and her Son. Twice a year – on the Feast of the Epiphany and during the festivities surrounding the Ascension (known as “la Festa della Sensa” in Venice) – doors on either side of Our Lady open up, and out come the three Magi, led by an angel. The angel and Kings make their way around Our Lady and Jesus, the angel regaling them with his trumpet, and the Kings bowing and removing their crowns.
Rosca de Reyes (King Cake)
As with most customs of our Faith, there is a tradition based on food for Epiphany Day and that is King Cake. Father Wieser in “Christian Feasts and Customs” shares:
An old tradition in most countries of Europe was the festival of the “Kings’ Cake” (Dreikonigskuchen), which was baked on Epiphany in honor of the Magi and eaten at a special party in the home on the afternoon of the feast. Often a coin was put in the dough before baking, and the person who found it was the “king.”
In Austria, Germany, France, and England, and also in Canada, this cake contained a bean and a pea, making the respective finders ‘Tang’ and ‘queen’ of the merry party. This custom has been explained as a relic of the ancient games of chance at the Roman Saturnalia. However, there is no proof of this connection; the first reports about the ‘Kings’ Cake’ date from the end of the fourteenth century. Also, the wild and excessive reveling of the Saturnalia or Calendae was never a feature of this festival.
It was an old custom in France to put a big piece of the cake aside ‘for our Lord’ and to give it to some poor person after the feast. Another tradition in France demanded that rich people help collect a goodly sum of money by giving a substantial donation in return for their piece of the cake. This money was deposited on a tray and was called ‘the gold of the Magi.’ It was afterward used to pay the cost of higher education for some talented poor youngster.
The Octave of the Epiphany
The practice of celebrating an Octave, while not only traced to the time spent by the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary awaiting the Paraclete, also has its origins in the Old Testament eight-day celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:36) and the Dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 7:9). Very truly, Christ did not come to abolish the Old Law but to fulfill it.
By the 8th century, Rome had developed liturgical octaves not only for Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas but also for the Epiphany and the feast of the dedication of a church. After 1568, when Pope Pius V reduced the number of octaves (since by then they had grown considerably), the number of Octaves was still plentiful. Octaves were classified into several types. Easter and Pentecost had “specially privileged” octaves, during which no other feast whatsoever could be celebrated. Christmas, Epiphany, and Corpus Christi had “privileged” octaves, during which certain highly ranked feasts might be celebrated. The octaves of other feasts allowed even more feasts to be celebrated.
To reduce the repetition of the same liturgy for several days, Pope Leo XIII and Pope St. Pius X made further distinctions, classifying octaves into three primary types: privileged octaves, common octaves, and simple octaves. The changes under St. Pius X did not really change the practice of any of the Octaves, except for Simple Octaves – it just changed the category labels. The Octave of the Epiphany remained until its suppression by Pope Pius XII in 1955 but those priests who still keep the pre-1955 Missal will celebrate it. However, even for those priests offering the 1962 Missal, the feria days during the former Octave permit the priest to offer a Votive Mass of the Epiphany. This is an ideal way for us to keep this venerable tradition even while using the 1962 Liturgical Books.
Feast of the Holy Family
The Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany (or January 12th if January 13th falls on a Sunday) was the feast of the Holy Family up until the reforms of 1955. The following Sundays, until Septuagesima, were named as the “Sundays after Epiphany.” Before the changes in 1911, the Second Sunday of Epiphany was kept as the Feast of the Holy Name, since January 2nd, 3rd, and 4th were the Octave Days of the Comites and January 5th was the Vigil of the Epiphany.
The Feast of the Holy Family is an ideal day to consecrate our families to the Holy Family. While this feastday was only recently inserted in the Universal Calendar in 1921 by Pope Benedict XV – it offers to modern mankind an example to aspire towards. We will never be as perfect as the Holy Family but the ideal shines forth as a north star to which we can aspire to get closer to. And with the Holy Family as our guide, we as a family must reject errors (e.g., artificial contraception, licentiousness, immodesty, etc.).
Blessing of Lambs on St. Agnes on January 21
While not specifically related to Epiphanytide, this season bears witness to the Feast of St. Agnes who is regarded as one of the most popular virgin martyrs. Catholic Culture remind us of a unique custom for this day:
Because of the similarity of her name to the Latin for ‘lamb’ (Agnus), the lamb has been St. Agnes’ symbol since the 6th century. On the feast day of St. Agnes on January 21st, the Trappist fathers of the Monastery of Tre Fontane (near Saint Paul’s Basilica) provide two lambs from their sheepfold to the Benedictine nuns of Saint Cecilia. They arrive at Saint Agnes’ Basilica wearing crowns, lying in ‘baskets decorated with red and white flowers and red and white ribbons—red for martyrdom, white for purity.’
For the festal Mass, the church, titular cardinal, the deacon, and subdeacon are decorated with red, white and gold. At the conclusion of the Holy Mass, there is a procession of little girls veiled and dressed in white lace with pale blue ribbons, followed by four resplendent carabinieri carrying the baby lambs. The lambs are blessed and incensed before being taken to the Vatican for the Holy Father’s blessing. Then they are delivered to the Convent of Saint Cecilia to become the pets of the sisters until Holy Thursday (when they are shorn) before being sacrificed on Good Friday.
The wool from these lambs is woven into 12 archbishops’ palliums. The pallium is an older symbol of the papacy than that of the famed triregnum. The elect becomes ‘Shepherd of Christ’s Flock’ when the pallium touches his shoulder and symbolizes that the new bishop is being ‘yoked’ with the bishop of Rome, who is the visible head of the Church. About 204 AD, Saint Felician of Foligno is the first recorded recipient of a pallium from Pope Saint Victor I.
Candlemas (The End of the 40 Days of Christmas)
Candlemas (i.e., the Feast of the Purification of our Lady) is another day which the modern world greatly overlooks in importance. The Feast of Candlemas, exactly 40 days after Christmas, commemorates the Blessed Virgin Mary’s obedience to the Mosaic law by submitting herself to the Temple for ritual purification, as commanded in Leviticus.
The Feast of the Purification is called Candlemas for the traditional blessing and distribution of candles on that day. It is customary to bring candles from home to be blessed – at least 51% beeswax candles that one uses for devotional purposes (candles for the family altar, Advent candles, etc.) so they can be lit after dusk on All Saints’ Day, during the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, and during storms and times of trouble. Nowadays, though, for those few parishes continuing this ancient observance, the parish will often provide the candles.
Mass on Candlemas is typically preceded by a procession with lighted candles. The lighted candles are held during the reading of the Gospel and from the beginning of the Canon of the Mass to Communion. And it is no coincidence that on this day which is devoted to light and shadows that the secular world celebrates groundhog day.
Blessing of Throats on St. Blasé
The day after Candlemas is the Feast of St. Blasé, who is invoked as a patron saint against diseases and ailments of the throat. In his honor, there is a special blessing of Candles proper to February 3rd followed by the blessing of throats. The priest takes two unlit candles and crosses them. He places one on one side of the parishioner’s neck and one on the other. And the priest says this prayer:
By the intercession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every malady of the throat, and from every possible mishap; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. R. Amen.
Let’s remember not to neglect this season and give it our due observance. Those of us praying the Older Breviary will find much beauty in the hymns and antiphons during these days.
Share this article widely and ask your priests to offer these various blessings from the Rituale Romanum, offer Votive Masses for the Epiphany during the former Octave of the Epiphany, and teach these customs to the faithful so we might recover in our own homes brick by brick the foundation of Christian traditions once again.
Art by Mr. Burne-Jones and William Morris.
Matthew Plese is a Third Order Dominican who resides in Chicago, IL. Matthew is a practicing Certified Public Accountant and Catechist. He is the President of CatechismClass.com, an online based organization whose mission is to make the best in Catholic religious education and Sacramental preparation available for those who need it. Matthew writes a monthly piece on apologetics and catechesis for Catholic Family News and a weekly column for the Fatima Center. He is also the author of Catholic Book Summaries: 54 Traditional and Contemporary Classics; Eschatology: The Catholic Study of the Four Last Things; and Understanding the Precepts of the Church. He also blogs at A Catholic Life.