Christmas and New Years may have come and gone in some parts of the world, but the holidays are not yet over. For Orthodox Christian communities that still hold with the old Julian calendar, Christmas comes late, allowing many to get a double dose of yuletide cheer on the Epiphany. Also referred to as Three Kings Day, some countries celebrate the holiday with daring swim races in ice cold water or with regal costumes like many other festivals. However, as many travellers are distracted by the (admittedly magical) Christmas markets of Western Europe, they tend to miss out on these wholly unique celebrations throughout the rest of the world.
You think stores start decorating for Christmas too early in your home town? Well, the Philippines might be a little frustrating for you. With a Christmas season that begins in September and lasts until the Epiphany in January, the Philippines have the longest Christmas season in the world. While Christmas carolers and the traditional bamboo or rattan star-shaped lanterns start lighting up the street at the beginning of the season, the main festivities don't really begin to boom until December 16th. However, the culmination of the holiday season comes on January 6th.
Although things have shifted in recent years, for a long time the magical gift bearer for Filipino children was not Santa and his elves, but the Three Kings. Throughout, the Philippines, the three wise men arrive and follow a grand processor through town to a clubhouse where they still present children with gifts. The grandest parade, of course, takes place in the nation's capital of Manila where the massive procession is the perfect way to bid the Christmas season farewell.
As a primarily Orthodox country, the Epiphany is a major holiday throughout Greece. However, most celebrations are less about spectacle and more about celebrating the holiday with friends and neighbors. Don't plan a January vacation to Greece on the Epiphany and expect many businesses or attractions to be open, most people want to be home with their families. For those that don't mind turning in early, the town of Drama provides the most unique look at some of Greece's many Epiphany celebrations.
Northern towns like Drama often feel like another country, which is why many villages have so many different traditions. In Drama, on the eve of the feast visitors will spot women sprinkling hearth ashes around their houses while the men don animal skin costumes called Babougeri with heavy bells at the waist. The noise and incantations are meant to drive away evil spirits as is the tradition of smacking people with bags full of ash on the feast day the next morning.
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There is no holiday that better proves the men in Bulgaria are infinitely manlier than you or any men you may know than the Epiphany. Celebrated on January 5th, the Epiphany celebration starts with a massive church Mass, but afterwards crowds from every church in town combine into one immense procession as the people of Kalofer all head down to the Tundzha River. With average January temperatures in Bulgaria hovering around -0.8°C (30°F), it is generally pretty chilly outside, but that makes it all the more impressive when all the young men in town dive into the icy river waters after a wooden cross. It is said that the first to fish the cross out of the river and bring it to the priest is going to be blessed with wealth and good fortune throughout the rest of the year. That is some pretty good incentive to lose a few toes to frost bite!
However, that's not where the icy water festivities in Bulgaria end. Men in Kalofer jump back in the river to do the traditional Horo dance (which is usually part of wedding celebrations on land) as part of the day's festivities. While most Bulgaria women are wise enough not to jump into a frozen river, it is said the waters where the cross is thrown will cure sickness, so visitors may spot more than a few visitors of any having a quick bath.
In Bulgaria, like many Orthodox countries, the celebration always revolves around water as the Epiphany signifies the baptism of Christ. However, while all the time that Bulgarian men spend in the water may sound like a recipe for pneumonia, the frigid traditional is often followed up by large bubbling pots of hot brandy to chase the chill away and lead to a pretty rowdy after-party.
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexican children are lucky, they get to double dip on the gift giving for both Christmas and the Epiphany. Throughout Mexico, the Epiphany is celebrated as El Dia de los Reyes, and while it doesn't quite have the pageantry of Epiphany parades in Spain, it has plenty fanfare of its own. The most famous part of Three King's Day in Mexico is the Rosca de Reyes, or King's Cake. In 2014, Mexico City's massive cake measured 1.9 kilometers (1.2 miles) long, stretching throughout downtown Mexico City's historic Zocalo Plaza. It required 4 tons of flour, 2 tons of butter, 1 ton of sugar, hundreds of kilograms of candied fruit, and 43,000 eggs to make, but it did feed 200,000 people. Somewhere inside this annual giant cake is a small figurine of the baby Jesus waiting to be found. However, the person who finds it doesn't really get good fortune. Instead, they must make tamales on February 2nd, the Day of the Candles, for everyone who ate the cake. Tamales for 200,000 people? That is a whole lot of masa, which explains why only a fraction of Mexico City's population shows up to try the cake.
Giant cake aside, Three King's Day in Mexico City also features a parade complete with the arrival of the Three Kings themselves. Prior to their arrival, the children of the city write letters to the Magi telling them what toy or gift they would like to receive, and before the parade the Three Kings visit the household and leave gifts for the children in their shoes or, in more modern times, under the Christmas tree like Santa Claus.