By Frank Michael McCormack
On my list of childhood traumas, taking down Christmas decorations sits near the top.
I’d beg to drag out the decorations as early we could, and I’d fight to leave them up – permanently if possible. And to hear my parents tell it, I never handled it well when the tree would get disassembled, stuffed in its box and stowed in the attic.
Over the years, the pain of the after-Christmas takedown has lessened, but it’s still a sad day when the flashing lights, wreaths, inflatable snowmen, trees and nativities start to disappear.
And so it was with great excitement this year that I finally caught on to one of the traditions associated with the Feast of the Epiphany, which is January 6. As it turns out, Christmas decorations can remain in place through Twelfth Night, January 5, but must be gone by the next morning.
But that personal epiphany got me to thinking about Epiphany. What is it? Where’d it come from? And what does it mean for me?
DIGGING DEEPER: GETTING FROM CHRISTMAS TO EASTER
First, a look at the current calendar of events:
Today, we celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25. Christmas season runs through Twelfth Night, January 5. The days between Christmas and Twelfth Night comprise the 12 Days of Christmas.
The next day, January 6, is known as Epiphany or King Day. It signals the official end of the Christmas season and the start of Carnival, a time of celebration that runs through Fat Tuesday (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday). Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a time of penitence and prayer that ends with Good Friday and the Easter Sunday celebration.
From Christmas to Easter, Christians travel the course of Jesus’ life, from his birth in a manger to his death and resurrection.
And it appears that Christians celebrated Epiphany very early on.
“Epiphany was actually celebrated earlier and more consistently and more widely than Christmas in the early church. The earliest date that we know of for Epiphany was 217,” said Rex Butler, a professor at New Orleans Baptist Seminary who specializes in early church history.
Initially, followers of Jesus celebrated four events on Epiphany: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi (‘kings’ who traveled from the East, following a star, to worship Jesus and give him gifts), the baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ first miracle (turning water to wine at a wedding). Each of these events is a way in which Jesus was revealed to the world, hence the word “epiphany.” In Greek, “epiphany” is the verb for “to manifest” or “to reveal” and carries the image of light. Jesus and his gospel continue to be that light to the world.
In time, Christians in the western branch of the church began to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 while continuing to recall the other three events on January 6. For more on why Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25, check out this article from Biblical Archaeology magazine: http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp. In some countries, Christians actually exchange gifts on Epiphany, not Christmas, in honor of the Wise Men’s gifts to Jesus.
Over time, traditions for observing Epiphany developed. In Europe, edible portions of Christmas decorations were taken down on Twelfth Night and eaten during the Epiphany feast. Some would have “burning of the green” celebrations where Christmas decorations were burned in a bonfire, in keeping with the light theme of the season.
Soon, ‘king cakes’ with beans hidden inside would be eaten on Epiphany. Whoever found the bean would be the ‘king’ of the Epiphany feast, regardless of the person’s social standing in the household. This tradition points to many of the ‘upside down’ aspects of the gospel story (the Son of God being born in a stable; ‘kings’ of the East coming to worship an infant born to a common family in a foreign, powerless country; and Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9 that ‘anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’).
Fast forward to New Orleans in 2011 and Epiphany carries with it a few local innovations. We still have king cakes, but there’s a whole commercial industry surrounding them now. Randazzo’s, Haydel’s, McKenzie’s, and Gambino’s are all bakeries that claim to have the best king cakes.
Instead of beans, New Orleans king cakes usually have small babies inside. If you get the baby, you don’t get to rule the feast but you are responsible for bringing the king cake to the next party. And you’re allowed to eat king cakes only from Epiphany through Fat Tuesday (though I suspect some people secretly eat king cake into Lent).
To mark the start of Carnival in New Orleans, the group “Phunny Phorty Phellows” rides down St. Charles Avenue in a streetcar on Epiphany to officially start the Mardi Gras season. Just watch this video and you’ll see why “Phunny” is a perfect name: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BaVNUPv97g&feature=related.
From Wise Men to the Phunny Phorty Phellows. Only in New Orleans.
GIVING AND RECEIVING: THE TRUE GIFT OF EPIPHANY
Most of the time, it’s the gifts from the Wise Men to Jesus that we focus on. Matthew 2:11 records their gift presentation this way: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
All three gifts were fit for a king, but with Jesus they took on much more than just kingly significance. Gold pointed to Jesus’ kingship, frankincense to his priesthood and myrrh, used in burial preparations, to his future suffering and death.
But it’s Jesus’ gift to the Magi – and to all of humanity – that is the true gift of Epiphany. The baby born in Bethlehem was the Son of God who came to make a way for people to be reconciled to God. And that’s cause for celebration!
So as you enjoy this parade season, remember the true cause for your celebration. And then, during Lent, remember the cost of that celebration.
But that’s a blog for another day.