By Colin Johnson, council secretary, and former theatre and film professor
When my children Bryce and Rebecca were young in the 1980s, Christmas had begun to last longer and longer. By then the commercial post-Halloween yuletide promotions were part of our culture, and our family also celebrated the full “12 days of Christmas,” a period of time that still seems to be a mystery among some Christians who routinely sing the popular carol.
On one early day of January, my children would take one of their snow boots—or maybe several each if feeling they were on a roll--, stuff them with straw, and place them on our front porch on the evening of the 5th. They were hoping to catch the attention— and favor--of the camels ridden by the magi, the three wise kings, who would be passing by through Cache Valley in the dead of night. After all, if Santa could climb down every chimney in the world in a single night, why couldn’t loping ungulates do the same on every street in the known universe? In return for the snack of straw, they might find a final present . . . or a lump of coal if they had been naughty, not nice. Well, actually, we always made certain there was always a treat. So ingrained a tradition did this become that my son and daughter continue this with their own children.
You see, we had spent a sabbatical year in Spain, where this tradition is practiced on what is more commonly called el Día de los Reyes, or Three Kings Day, the traditional celebration of the visitation of the magi to the cradle of Christ in Bethlehem on the twelfth day after His birth—Epiphany. Sometimes this Feast Day is lost among the other religious post-New Year’s celebrations like football playoffs and championships, but there it is, right on the Church Calendar each year. Shakespeare’s well-known comedy Twelfth Night is thought to refer to the holy day on which his play was first performed (or commissioned to perform?) and not its subject matter.
The word itself comes from the Greek meaning “to reveal.” In modern usage we use the phrase “to experience an epiphany” to mean a sudden revelation, a deep insight, often a moment of significant self-knowledge. In dramaturgy, it may refer to the moment in which the tragic hero discovers a great fact that causes him or her to make a crucial choice (Hamlet discovers the truth that his uncle Claudius had murdered his father and knows he must avenge him to free him from limbo). While the decision may ironically lead to the his/her destruction, it is also an ennobling act of integrity that fulfills the cycle, or mission, of the hero (Hamlet poisons his murderous uncle and is himself mortally wounded, but in so doing he also saves Denmark and restores the moral order to the “rotten” country as a true royal is bound to do). Pardon my academic precision, but I think that description it is relevant in some ways to Jesus’ story.
Meanwhile, back with my kids in Providence, Utah: Our family had played out the teasing “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” taunt like a ping-pong match over the expected Christmas gifts place under the tree, to be opened on the morning of the 25th. . “Oh, maybe I do know it, but then I know something you don’t know. Nyah-nyah-nyah- nyah-nyah-nah.” Another tradition was to open one gift on the 24th eve. No surprise here, as it was always a new pair of pajamas.
Many believe that Christmas Eve/Day is not the correct time to exchange gifts. In much of the Catholic world—Spain and Latin America in particular—it was common that Epiphany was the day to visit friends, drink chocolate, and share gifts, not Christmas. In Italy, there is the special tradition of La Bufana, an old woman who delivers gifts to children on the eve of the 6th. Her name is derived from the Italian Festa dell'Epifania. Occasionally she is depicted as a witch thought to have been visited by the magi, but this is disputed (for this, if, interested, see Federico Fellini’s film Amarcord, which presents her in a street festival as a giant puppet joyously paraded through the streets in a provincial city). It is interesting to note that many traditions about St. Nicholas in Europe are designed to scare every last chocolate mint out of a child. In rural Germany he is a figure of dread, emerging from the Black Forest at midnight while trembling youngsters peer expectantly into the dark. I remember my Texas-born wife tell of cowering in the bedroom with her siblings when she heard the first jingling of bells from the living room on Christmas Eve.
The traditions of the many symbols—including the date of Christmas itself—that have been adopted into practice in order to distract a Christian culture from their “pagan” origins make for a fascinating study in itself. One story of the Christmas tree is that it comes from a Viking symbol of power attributed to the god Balder and was brought into homes in northern Europe as early as the 16th century to celebrate the holiday. And don’t get me started on Easter eggs! Nevertheless, when I first moved to Utah, I was saddened at my first sight of a tinseled “fir corpse,”--broken, battered, obviously without much divine vigor left in it--lying curbside on the afternoon of one December 25th. I imagined it tossed there by a weary parent rejoicing that the two month long holiday season was finally over. Over?!! Why the first day of Christmas was not yet over! I would remind this person that in many (Lutheran) churches we do not even sing carols until the Christmas season—that is, the one identified by the church calendar—has begun.
And then let’s think about those “wise men.” Wise? Here were three powerful kings, according to Matthew, who abandoned their duties and obligations to their tribes, trekking miles across desert lands, drawn like a moth to a brighter heavenly body, bringing with them valuable gifts of absolutely no practical use to a baby. Furthermore, they jeopardized their mission by naively calling attention to themselves by the Roman authorities. Wise men? Give me a break!! It is no wonder that in Gian Carlo Menotti’s well-known opera Amahl and the Night Visitors he occasionally treats them as buffoonish.
So, as you belt out the many gifts in the song—from the simple partridge in a pear tree to the 12 drummers climactically crashing down upon you—think about those kings and their mission. And just who is the “true love,” according to the song, who gives them? Perhaps these gentlemen were engaged with their own version of the taunting game my family would practice so many centuries later: “Maybe-we-know-something- you-don’t-know.”
Have a blessed—and illuminating—Epiphany!!
This blog is run by the council members of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Logan, UT. For more information, check out our church's website at princeopeace.org.