by Katie Julius
As the calendar quickly slips from December to January, we homeschoolers often find ourselves searching for motivation to hit the books again after the busyness of the holiday season. We invite you to take a bit longer to savor (and recover from) the Christmas holiday with this unit study about Epiphany.
What is Epiphany?
Epiphany is a celebration of the arrival of the Magi to Jesus and the presentations of their gifts. It is a part of the liturgical calendar and celebrated by many countries and cultures around the world on January 6. The word “epiphany” means a revelation or manifestation.
How is it Celebrated?
The celebrations that most of us here in California are likely familiar with are those from the Mexican traditions of Dia de Reyes, or Three Kings Day. However, there are traditions from a variety of cultures that may inspire your own celebration. You could even host a party and invite some friends over as you learn about and celebrate these men, their journey, their gifts and more.
Three Kings Cake
Taking on a number of different iterations across the globe, the gist of a Three Kings Cake is that it is a sweet pastry baked with a special hidden item inside. Representing the search for Jesus, the person who finds this item receives some sort of recognition or surprise. Depending upon the tradition, the item might be a small figurine of a baby, a coin, or a bean. Here’s one recipe for rosca de reyes (Spanish) roots and one for a gallete des rios (France) if you’d like to make your own.
Another tradition popular around the world, but also taking on different forms, is gift giving. Just like the tradition of St. Nickolas (or Santa) leaving gifts in stockings, children receive gifts in their shoes on the eve of Epiphany. Sometimes these gifts are said to be from the three kings themselves, while in Italy, a good witch brings well-behaved children gifts on a broomstick. Tomie de Paola has written a book that tells the legend of “la befana” that would be a good read to learn about this tradition from Italy.
Some families choose to exchange gifts on Epiphany – sometimes instead of Christmas, sometimes in addition to. Consider how this might fit into your family’s traditions in celebrating the Christmas holiday.
Myth vs. Fact
Read the biblical account in Matthew. Discuss what is actually detailed in the Bible versus what we see in movies or have heard in traditional stories.
Watch a cinematic interpretation of the Christmas story, such as The Nativity Story (2006) and compare and contrast it with what we find in the Bible. Why do you think they made the changes they did? Do you think it’s okay to make those changes?
Who were they? Were they kings like most traditions depict? How many were there? Where did they come from? How did they travel? When did they arrive? We probably have more questions than answers about the Magi themselves, though there is a lot of speculation and inferences we can make based on the history and cultures during the time of Christ’s birth.
Answers in Genesis published an article that addresses some of the misconceptions that we have about the wise men that you may find helpful in your discussions.
Print out a map of the Middle East and Asia. Map a plausible journey they could have taken based on what you have learned.
Look at artwork depicting the “Adoration of the Magi.” While we don’t typically encourage the use of Wikipedia, the entry on this topic provides a list of a number of different works of art for you to enjoy together. Are they in line with the biblical account or have the artists taken some “artistic liberties” with their work? Learn more about the authors and why they may have chosen this subject for their artwork. Using your favorite art media, create your own “Adoration of the Magi” artwork.
Perhaps the most well-known Christmas hymn about these travelers from afar is “We Three Kings.” Learn about the author and composer. Why was it written? How was it meant to be sung? What other popular carols did he write? Perform the song together with your family with one person taking the role of each king; be creative in your costuming.
We usually see the wise men riding on camels. Research about camels. Do you think this was a viable method of transportation during this time? Are there other animals they could have ridden? If you have older kids, have them pick a side and either prepare a short speech or even debate with each other, on how these men traveled on their long journey.
Gifts – Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh
This is, perhaps, the most well known part of the biblical account of the visit of the magi – the gifts that they bring. When we think about our baby showers of today or the gifts we might give to young babies or toddlers, these probably aren’t at the top of the wish list. So, why were these the gifts the wise men brought? And what exactly are they?
If you are able, find physical examples of each of these items that you can show to your kids. Since they’re expensive items, this may be a challenge. Perhaps you have some gold plated jewelry or a small flake from a gold panning field trip you could show them. Both frankincense and myrrh can be found in resin or essential oil form, so you can ask around to see if anyone has some you could borrow.
Find out the believed symbolism of these gifts. We know they were extravagant gifts, fit for royalty, but there is deeper symbolism for each gift as well, based on their use in those times. Gold represented kingship, frankincense was a symbol of his priesthood as it was used during worship. Myrrh was used as an embalming material, and symbolized his future death and embalming. (Biblicalarcheology.org)
While kids probably don’t have monetarily valuable gifts to offer to Jesus, we do have things that we can offer to Jesus as a gift. Discuss with your family what you might have brought as a tangible gift if you were one of the wise men. Then talk about what you can offer to Jesus as a gift today. Use craft or art supplies to draw a picture you can post in your home to remind you of what you want to give to Jesus each day.
The Bethlehem star was what guided the wise men to the baby (or toddler) Jesus. Since this was likely something visible, what, in space, could explain what they saw? This article presents several plausible options, though as a secular source, we do caution that they posit the idea that the star never really existed.
Create your own origami star to remind you to always be seeking after Jesus. This tutorial shows you how to fold a traditional 5-pointed star. For those who might be more advanced, learn about the Moravian star and how it’s used in Christmastime celebrations and then try folding your own!
We’ve compiled a list of books about the wise men (some fiction, some non-fiction) with varying aged audiences that you may find useful as you learn more about epiphany and the wise men.
The Story of the Wise Men by Patricia A. Pingrey (picture book)
The Story of Christmas by Pamela Dalton (picture book)
The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke
Epiphany: The Untold Epic Journey of the Magi by Paul Harrington
Christmas: The Rest of the Story by Rick Renner
Three Searching Kings by Elmer Towns
The Season of the Nativity by Sybil MacBeth (additional ideas for celebrating)
Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men by Dwight Longenecker
However you choose to celebrate, we hope that you find these resources helpful and that they lead to you experience Jesus and the account of His birth in a whole new way.