The Epiphany of Our Lord has traditionally marked the end of the festivities of the Christmas season, even though Ordinary Time doesn't resume until after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and historically the Christmas season proper has continued until Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The Twelve Days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day and end with Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany.
So Epiphany, in a very real sense, represents a completion of Christmas: The God Who became Man and was revealed to shepherds of Israel on Christmas has now been revealed to the Gentiles, in the form of the wise men who saw His star in the East, and came to worship Him. What many Christians do not realize is that Epiphany is also the beginning of Christmas, in the sense that it is the older of the two feasts, and the one out of which the celebration of Christmas later grew. We cannot have Christmas without Epiphany.
And so it has always seemed odd to me that the Catholic Church allows national bishops' conferences to transfer the celebration of Epiphany from its traditional date of January 6 to the Sunday between January 2 and January 8, inclusive (and most do). I understand the reasoning: Epiphany is a very important feast--indeed, it is one of the ten Holy Days of Obligation in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church--and many Catholics today, sadly, ignore their duty to attend Mass on holy days. So transferring the celebration to Sunday ensures that more Catholics will actually observe this very important feast.
But along the way, something has been lost--namely, the close connection between Christmas and Epiphany, reflected in the Twelve--not Nine or Fourteen or any other number in between--Days of Christmas.
And so it is always a treat when, as it has this year, January 6 falls on a Sunday, and all Latin Rite Catholics everywhere celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany on its traditional date, at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The unity of celebration on the traditional date testifies to the world that we believe God is with us. We have seen His star in the East, and here on Epiphany, we have come to worship Him.
(A preseppe or Nativity scene featuring the Three Kings in a church in Rome, Italy, in January 2008. Photo © Scott P. Richert)