The season of Epiphany encompasses the time from January 6 (the end of Christmas) until Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent. Most people associate this season with the wise men, or the three kings, but this is only a small aspect of all the season entails (One of the most famous Epiphany hymns is “As with Gladness, Men of Old,” which is a narrative of the visit of the wise men.) The term “epiphany” means “manifestation,” and refers to the visit of the wise men, Jesus’ presentation and teaching in the temple and His gradual growing in stature in the “eyes of God and man.” Notice that the paraments have become green once more—this green is symbolic of growth (as in plants and nature) and reflects Christ’s growth from the babe in the manger to the young person who astounds the scholars in the synagogue with His knowledge. Listen to many of the hymns during the ensuing weeks—many deal with “light” and “brightness,” which obviously refers to this “enlightenment” of humankind through the teachings and works of God’s Son.
But it is no coincidence that we associate Epiphany primarily with the three kings. The Greek (gentile) Church originally related well to the wise men because the wise men were not Hebrews but gentiles, and their reception by Jesus (young as He was) represents God’s embracing of the gentiles as well as the Hebrews. This was a comforting thought to the Greeks—and to the later Church as well—who certainly did not come from a Hebrew environment and could not claim strictly the promises of God to His “chosen priesthood” in the Old Testament. Therefore, our Western Church emphasizes (perhaps subconsciously) this “revealing of God” even to the Gentiles. Many of the oldest hymns we have are Greek and deal with Epiphany.
In the early Church (as the church year was developing during the first couple of centuries), the most important liturgical festival (after Easter) was Epiphany. Epiphany was so important that a six week period of preparation (Advent) was added to coincide with the six week period of preparation (Lent) for Easter. When Christmas was added later, this cut off two weeks of Advent, and Advent was then viewed as a preparation for Christmas (which is our current tradition as well.) Orthodox Christians—Greek, Coptic, Russian, etc.—still celebrate Epiphany as we celebrate Christmas. To them to this very day, Epiphany is the most important nativity celebration.