Why it’s time for an epiphany on Christmas decorations

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Boys dressed as Magi in St. Peter’s Square. To celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, some families bake the bread of the Three Kings and the children dress up as Magi.

Photo CNS / Paul Haring

So it ends with a barely moan. Epiphany, the culmination of the Christmas feast, is upon us. Nowadays, if the conclusion of the Twelve Days is marked at all, it is the dismantling of the falling and falling Christmas tree that has been standing in the corner of the living room since the beginning of Advent, if not earlier. The oft-repeated superstition that it is unlucky to leave the decorations in place after Twelfth Night adds urgency to the task.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Twelfth Night was – and still is in many Catholic countries – one of the three great peaks of Christmas festivities, its celebration equaling and exceeding even those of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Its diminished status in 21st-century Britain is not better illustrated by the confusion over when Twelfth Night actually falls: is it January 5 or 6?

As I will explain, it is most certainly the last: the feast of the Lord’s Epiphany. This great holy day does not represent the conclusion of Christmas either and in past centuries it was certainly not the day when houses and churches would be stripped of their greenery in the dead of winter.

I take great pleasure in wishing people a Merry Christmas throughout the Twelve Days. It’s not just because I’m an antique dealer (in every sense of the word and I even have the tweeds to prove it) but because I think the joy, the goodwill and the holiday celebrations year, which began with Christmas Vespers on the eve of the afternoon, are well worth sustaining until the first days of the New Year. The fact that we are not doing this today is because our modern, market-oriented revelry has already lasted for a month on Christmas Day. Bigger, poorer, and a bit cheerful, many miss it all on New Years Eve and the final, hedonistic Christmas blast.

But this is truly a modern innovation and doesn’t really take into account why Christmas is so important in the first place – the need to generally brighten up and liven up the darker time of year. You don’t need me to remind you that January is almost as dark and often much colder than December.

It was something our medieval and modern ancestors understood all too well.

Hence the importance of the feast of Epiphany on January 6, or “little Christmas” as it was sometimes called. Meaning “apparition” or “manifestation” in Greek, the observance of Epiphany dates back to at least the second century. The first centuries of its celebration commemorated various moments in the life of Christ, including his baptism, the wedding feast at Cana and the feast of the five thousand. But all of this was superseded when the feast became associated with the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ, an event described in the Gospel of Matthew. Of an unknown number, these sages were quickly confused with the three kings, who according to the Psalms would honor the Messiah.

The veneration of the Three Kings and the celebration of the Epiphany were energized in Western Christendom by the “translation”, or displacement, of the alleged relics of the Magi from Milan to Cologne in 1164 by the Germanic Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. The citizens of Cologne love any excuse to party, and to this day the celebrations, sacred and secular, that take place there on Kings Day are something to see. Epiphany remains a holiday, characterized by fun and fantasy, in much of Catholic Europe.

In medieval England, the day’s religious services were just as spectacular and dramatic as those celebrated in honor of the Nativity. Twelfth Night feasting, drinking and entertainment were often the most lavish and indulgent of the entire Christmas season. Costumed “mummers” entertained the adults and the good alike in their large halls. In 1413, Lollards, proto-proto-Protestant supporters of theologian John Wycliff, hatched a plot to disguise himself as mimes and kidnap King Henry V while participating in the Twelfth Night celebrations in the Great Hall of Eltham Palace. A century later, the young Henry VIII organized a spectacular Twelfth Night mask at the palace.

Although the Reformation ended the Masses and the liturgical drama of the morning of Epiphany, the biblical status of the feast and its royal associations ensured that the amusements, feasts and games of Epiphany and Twelfth Night persisted in Protestant England.

Still in place for these celebrations, the greenery brought inside on Christmas Eve. Indeed, as the verses of Robert Herrick, the 17th century Anglican clergyman and poet, make clear, these decorations remained until the eve of Candlemas, or February 1. It was believed that a goblin inhabited every branch of holly, bay leaf or rosemary left after this day, no doubt the origin of the superstitions associated with the past of their expiration decorations which persist to this day.

Falling on February 2, exactly forty days after Christmas Day, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Candlemas in English (so called because of the practice of blessing candles on that day) marked the true end. of Christmas cycle of holidays and celebrations. He even had his own late medieval Christmas carol, opening with the words: “Now, haue a gud day, now have gud day! / I am Crystmas, and now I am going.” “

The interval between Epiphany and Candlemas was far from being the joyless, almost penitential season that January has become. Nicholas Blundell, the early 18th century Lancashire Catholic gentleman I wrote about in a previous column, enjoyed the ‘joy of Christmas’ until the end of January. Communal ceremonies, celebrations and feasts marked “Plow Monday,” the first Monday after Epiphany, when plowing, a key event in the agricultural year, began.

Sadly, these traditions did not survive the Christmas reinventions of the 19th and 20th centuries. But I don’t think it makes sense. There is little precious joy in January at the best of times. This year, the accelerated spread of the Covid and the need for increasingly stringent restrictions only worsen the misery. This is why English Heritage urges us to emulate our ancestors and keep our Christmas decorations until February 1st. I will follow their wise advice. When my greenery and my lights fall on the eve of Candlemas, brighter days, in all directions, will be upon us.

Listen to Michael Carter discuss the Epiphany on BBC Radio 4’s Today program this morning at around 1:42 a.m. immediately after reviewing the article.


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