One of the sad byproducts of the endless “Holiday Season” that stretches from Halloween on (or, in recent years, even earlier – creating a weird Nightmare Before Christmas feeling in many stores), is that many people are thoroughly sick of Christmas by the time it arrives. The next day the tree goes out – or perhaps lingers a week until New Year’s Eve. But, by then, the desire to celebrate has really dimmed.
As a result, the Twelve Days of Christmas get very short shrift, indeed – and most galling of all is the complete rushing through of the Epiphany. Its Eve is the famed Twelfth Night of song and story, and it not only closes the Christmas season proper (although Yuletide still lingers as late as Candlemas), it also commemorates three beautiful mysteries in which Our Lord revealed Himself as God – hence the word “Epiphany”.
The first is the visit of the Three Kings to the stable in Bethlehem; the second is the Baptism in the River Jordan; and the third is the transformation of water into wine at the marriage feast of Cana.
The Eastern Rites commemorate the Baptism solely; but they do so as splendidly as ever the Latin West did. To be sure, we did. The Epiphany was a major feast liturgically, with an Octave of its own following. Some common traditions have been retained – namely, the blessing of water and chalk. The latter is still often used to bless the doorways of houses by inscribing the initials of the Three Kings and the year over them.
Most of our other traditions have disappeared, however. In keeping with Archbishop Bugnini’s early work on the Liturgy, Epiphany’s Octave was abolished in the 1950s. After Vatican II, the feast itself was transferred from January 6 to the nearest Sunday (although 2019 is one of those favoured years wherein the two coincide). The United States, being settled primarily by Protestants, either never had the sort of customs to which I refer, or else saw them restricted to various ethnic enclaves, only to fall into disuse in time.
Despite all this, there are yet favoured places within the US where the Three Kings still reign, and Epiphany holds its own. The best known is probably the Gulf Coast region, from Pensacola, Florida, to Houston, Texas, where the mark of French culture remains. As Carnival is still celebrated in something approaching its ancient splendour throughout the area, so too is the Epiphany. The gâteau des rois – “King Cake” – often in Mardi Gras colours of purple, green and gold, is still offered on and around this day. Parties are held, where the guests try to find a figurine of a little baby representing the Christ Child hidden therein. The winner must provide the next cake or host the next Mardi Gras party.
New Mexico was settled by the Spanish, who arrived to find the local inhabitants to be the most organised Indians north of the Aztecs – the Pueblo peoples in their intricate communal structures. The governor of each Pueblo was given a baston del mando – cane of command – as a sign of his direct connection to the King of Spain.
In 1861, President Lincoln sent them another set of canes – so it may be said the Pueblos are the only folk standing in a feudal relationship with the president. But to add to the confusion, in 1987, King Juan Carlos sent a new set of 19 to each of these towns to symbolise his ancestors’ relationship with theirs. At any rate, all three are brought to the Mass that begins the Epiphany celebrations (complete with feasting and dancing) by the respective governors.
In the Pennsylvania Dutch (really German) country, the locals often place three silver coins outside their doors on Twelfth Night, to help finance their trip. Some Polish families in the state still retain some of their customs – such as gift delivery by the Kings and the eponymous cake. Greeks throughout the United States celebrate the feast with a cleric dropping a blessed cross into a lake or river, and a host of young men jumping in to retrieve it – the Florida town of Tarpon Springs is most famous for this.
It may be that the desperation and annoyance of modern life is beginning to return to the feast some of its lost lustre. Certainly, I have noticed that the Christmas lights in the Los Angeles suburbs where I live stay up longer every year. Perhaps, in some unconscious way, the emptiness of our times is making some reluctant to take leave of Christmas – even if they’ve been at it for two months already. In any case, let those of us who believe in its mysteries do our best to keep the feast as our fathers once did.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles