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Epiphany in Eritrea and around the world

Epiphany, or Timket as it is known here, is a significant holiday for Eritreans. Besides the colorful ceremony, legend has it that Timket ends the cold holiday season. The icy winds supposedly drown away in the Timket water. If such is true, tomorrow will be a wonderful day.

Epiphany is one of Eritrea’s national holidays. It is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. The name of the feast as celebrated in the Orthodox churches may be rendered in English as the Theophany, closer in form to the Greek (“God shining forth” or “divine manifestation”). Here, it is one of the great feasts of the liturgical year, being third in rank, behind only Easter and Christmas. It is celebrated on 6 January of the calendar that a particular Church uses. On the Revised Julian or Gregorian calendar, it is celebrated on 20 January.

Many in the West observe a twelve-day festival, starting on December 25 and ending on January 5. This is recognized as Christmas time or the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” However, for the Catholic Church, “Christmas time runs from First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to, and including, the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6” – a period not limited to twelve days. Some Christian cultures, especially those of Latin America and some in Europe, extend the season to as many as forty days, ending on Candlemas (2 February).

Today, in Orthodox churches, the emphasis of this feast is on the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Second Person of the Trinity at the time of his baptism. It is also celebrated because, according to tradition, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river by Saint John the Baptist marked one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity manifested themselves simultaneously to humanity: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, God the Son being baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove descending from heaven (the other occasion was the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor). Thus, the holy day is considered to be a Trinitarian feast.

The special celebration in Eritrea is characterized by great color and jubilation. The gathering at Mai Timket, a wide water basin with a statue depicting John the Baptist baptizing Jesus Christ in the middle, has always been a landmark event, both for locals and foreigners. Thousands of the Christian faithful attend early morning Mass featuring preaching, ceremonial dancing, and spiritual songs.

Timket celebrations have specific traditions. The major one is a procession that involves the Tabot. This is a model of the Ark of the Covenant, which is present on every Eritrean altar. The Tabot is wrapped in rich cloth and borne on the head of the priest, who takes part in the procession. This represents the manifestation of Jesus when he came to the Jordan river for baptism. The procession ends near a pool or a stream, where the Divine Liturgy is conducted at about 2 a.m. The Tabot is carried by priests from each church to the body of water, accompanied by the faithful and members of the clergy. Those involved chant, dance, beat drums, and wave prayer sticks. As evening falls, the priests and the gathered crowd participate in an overnight vigil and Mass around the Arks.

Following Mass, the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, usually in the presence of the Governor of the Central Region and invited dignitaries, dips a golden processional cross in the water, blesses it, and then sprinkles some on the faithful. This serves as a reminder of baptism – the remission of sins and that through the baptismal waters a person accepts the obligations of Christian commitment.

After the ceremony, most people enter the water and immerse themselves, as a symbol of renewing baptismal vows. Some even go to the extent of filling water bottles and containers. Subsequently, they sprinkle water from the containers and bottles all over the people around. While it may be irritating to some, young kids especially enjoy it and they dash around sprinkling water on complete strangers and soaking their clothes.

This was also common among many of my fellow students when I was in college in Adi Keih. After the ceremony in the town was over, many of the students that would hurry back to their dormitories with bottles filled with water. Then they’d empty the bottle’s contents on their friends, many who skipped the ceremony, preferring instead to remain in bed.

Meanwhile, the Tabot is brought back to the church, paraded in a long procession through the streets with the priests dressed in their elaborate robes. They are followed by huge crowds of dancing and singing children. By the end, everyone goes back home to continue the celebration. Families usually gather for a feast, with different types of food often available. After the food is blessed, people enjoy the feast and also engage in deep conversations about the day.

Around the world, the occasion is celebrated with similar fervor. In Spain it is called ‘The Festival of the Three Magic Kings’ (“Fiesta de Los Tres Reyes Mages”). Spanish and some other Catholic children receive their presents, suggested as being delivered by the Three Kings. In France, you may eat a “galette des rois”, a flat almond cake. It has a toy crown cooked inside it and is decorated on top with a gold paper crown. In Italy, some children also get their presents on Epiphany. But they believe that an old lady called “Befana” brings them. Children put stockings up by the fireplace for her to fill.

In Austria, at Epiphany, some people write a special sign in chalk over their front door. It is a reminder of the three “wise men” that visited the baby Jesus. The sign is made from the year being split in two, with initials of the names that are sometimes given to the three “wise men”, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, in the middle. So 2019 would be: 20*C*M*B*19. The sign is meant to protect the house for the coming year. The tradition is also present in some parts of Germany.

In Ireland, Epiphany is sometimes called “Nollaig na mBean” (“Women’s Christmas”). Traditionally, the women get the day off and men do the housework and cooking! It is becoming more popular and many Irish women now together on the Sunday nearest Epiphany and have tea and cakes.

In New Orleans, in the USA, on Epiphany/King’s Day, the Christmas tree is either taken down or the ornaments are replaced with purple, gold, and green ones. Then it becomes a “Mardi Gras Tree”. People also like to eat King cake, a cinnamon pastry with sugar on the top and sometimes filled with cream cheese or jam. The cake will have a little baby plastic doll inside, which is to represent Jesus. Whoever gets the piece with the baby has to supply the next cake! Some people even have a “King Cake Party” every Friday before Lent (the period before Easter).

Epiphany Eve, which is also known as Twelfth Night, marks the end of the traditional Christmas celebrations and is the time when Christmas decorations are to be taken down – although some people leave them up until Candlemas.

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