Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated Epiphany as an eight day feast between Jan 6 and Jan 13 - this changed in 1955 when Pope Pius XII abolished all but three octaves (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost) and again in 1969 with the revision of the Calendar stating that the Epiphany of the Lord is to be celebrated on Jan 6, unless, where it is not observed as a holy day of obligation, it has been assigned to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8.
In the early church, it is believed Epiphany originated in the Greek eastern half of the Roman Empire as a feast to honor the baptism of Jesus. The Egyptian dates found in writings of Clement of Alexandria correspond to the Roman dates of January 6 and 10th. In his writings, Saint Clement also writes that the Basilides (though Gnostic) would read the Gospels in their liturgical readings - if the congregation began reading Mark at the beginning of the year it would arrive at the Baptism on January 6th. It is possible then that both early Christians and Basilides were both arriving on the same date for the feast.
Ammianus Marcellinus is the first to write of Epiphany being a Christian feast and wrote in his letter around 361 AD that the holiday was listed twice (potentially as both a baptism and birth feast). As the feast grew in popularity it began to expand to include the commemoration of his birth, the visit of the magi, all of Jesus' childhood events and the miracle at the wedding in Cana. In the West, the holiday began to emphasize the visit of the Magi. The Magi represented all of the non-Jewish peoples of the world and their visit to Christ a revelation to the gentiles. Saint John Chrysostom wrote of the significance of the meeting between the Magi and Herod's court :
"The star had been hidden from them so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way the birth of Jesus would be made known to all."
Saint john Cassian writes too that Egyptian monasteries (in the 5th century) celebrated both the Nativity and the Baptism on the same date (Jan 6). The pilgrim Egeria wrote in 385 AD of a celebration in Jerusalem called the Epiphany that commemorated the Nativity and an octave associated with the feast.
The Magi's visit to Christ gives testimony to the universality of the Church. According to ancient customs, the priest announces the date of Easter on the feast of Epiphany and is sometimes sung or proclaimed at the ambo by a deacon, cantor or reader. A formula with the appropriate chant in the tone of the Exsultet is found in the Roman Missal. In many places the priest blesses Epiphany water, frankincense, gold and chalk - the chalk is then used to write the initials of the three magi over the doors of churches and home. The initials can also be interpreted as the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat (May God bless the house).
In Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Mexico City, the day is celebrated as "Dia de Reyes" commemorating the arrival of the Magi with the morning before called "Noche de Reyes". Children often leave their shoes by the door with grass and water for the Magi's animals - the next morning they awake to find gifts left by the Magi. Families often share in a Rosa de Reyes or Epiphany cake and begin to take down Christmas decorations.
Epiphany is celebrated in Bulgaria on January 6th and is celebrated as Bogoyavlenie (The Manifestation of God), Krashtenie Gospodne (Baptism of the Lord), or Yordanovden (Day of Jordan). A popular tradition happens when a priest on this day throws a heavy wooden cross into a freezing body water and young men dive in, racing to retrieve it.
The Dutch and Flemish refer to Epiphany as Driekoningen and Germans refer it to Dreikonigstag. Children in groups of three dress up and move from house to house singing songs and receiving sweets. A Koningentaart (a pastry with almond filing) is prepared hiding a black bean inside. Whoever finds the bean is called the king or queen for the day. January 6th is a public holiday in Austria, three cantons of Switzerland and three federal states of Germany. The German Chancellor and Parliament also receive a visit from the star singers (groups of children in costume). Many often also eat a Three Kings cake - a golden pastry filled with orange and spice representing the gifts given by the Magi to Christ.
In Ireland, the Epiphany is traditionally called Nollaig na mBan or "Women's Christmas" and was a time for women to rest and celebrate for themselves after working so hard during Christmas. It offered a day for women to gather for a special meal with wine (to honor the Wedding at Cana). Other traditions include bringing the sprigs of Christmas Holly that had bene used as decorations and putting away the Christmas decorations.
The French share two types of king cake - the northern half and Belgium eat a galette des Rois which is a round, flat cake made with flake pastry and filled with granipane, fruit or chocolate. The Southern regions of France eat a crown shaped cake or brioche filled with fruit called a gateau des Rois. Both contain a porcelain or plastic figurine often called a feve. The youngest person at the table gets the first slice and whoever finds the figurine is called the king or queen, wears a paper crown and chooses either to offer a beverage to everyone at the table or volunteer to host the next king cake.
This French tradition is matched in United States most predominately in the state of Louisiana where Epiphany starts the beginning of the Carnival season. Louisianan King Cakes are generally round, filled with cinnamon, glazed white and coated in color sanding sugar. The interval between Epiphany and Mardi Gras is often known as King Cake season. Carnival krewes begin having their balls and the first New Orleans krewe parades in street cars.
Manitou Springs Colorado celebrates Epiphany with a the Great Fruitcake Toss with prizes awarded for the farthest throw and most creative projectile device.