As most of us know from the song about the partridge and the pear tree, there are twelve days of Christmas. The season ends on January 6, traditionally celebrated as the day when the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem with those gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In Elizabethan England the last night of the Christmas season was celebrated with special parties and feasts. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was written to be performed at that special time of year.
Even today, the twelve days of Christmas are more than a phrase from a carol. In much of the Spanish speaking world, January 6 is when kids get their presents. Jesus got gold, frankincense and myrrh; they get video games and dolls.
In New Orleans, January 6 marks the end of the season of Christmas holiday parties and feasting, and the start of the Carnival season of parties and feasting. When I visited there, my cousins live down in Baton Rouge, I remember people bitterly complaining how unfair life was; while everyone else in the country was going on post-Christmas diets, we still faced a month of king cake parties and packing on the pounds.
Italians of course still celebrate Epiphany and throughout Brooklyn you could still see celebrations. It made me feel a little closer to them than the rest of the New Yorkers, those little cultural things help.
But then there are the Orthodox who do not celebrate Epiphany but Theophania, and that’s just another difference between us and the rest of the groups. I am Greek Eastern Orthodox and while we still swap gifts on Theophany, though I think that tradition is dying, because while we follow the modern Gregorian Calendar for Christmas but not for Pascha (Easter is a Roman word).
All of the other Orthodox follow the Julian (for Juilius Caesar) calendar for both. SO why are we different? It’s rather simple actually, and the reason is because that was one of the stipulations that the British had when they helped us get rid of Ottoman Turkish control in 1821; the other was accepting for the first time in our history a King.
While we Greeks changed on Christmas, which we consider a minor holiday, we did not relent on the key Christian holiday, Pascha and that was that. So today we are are out of step with the rest of the Orthodox world who is celebrating Christmas today, January 7th and the 12th night on the 19th. Of course real Orthodox did not celebrate New Year’s on the 1st either, which to us is still a religious holiday, but I do not know many who still do, so I think that one has been lost…unfortunately.
One of the interesting thing is the Yule log which burns during the holiday season and so I will continue Yule-blogging: reflecting on Christmas in ways that I hope will make sense to Christians and non-Christians alike. The Yule blog is a work in progress; each year I try to make it a little clearer, a little more useful, a little less hopelessly inadequate at explaining some of the most important and mysterious truths there are.
The meaning of Christmas is much bigger than the trite clichés that usually come up in this context; I won’t just be writing about the Importance of Giving and the Desirability of Being Nice. Christmas, at least the way I was taught, is a lot more than a merry interlude in the darkest, nastiest time of the year. It is more than getting or even giving. It is more than carols and candy, more than wonderful meals with the people you love best in the world. It is much more than the modern echo of the pagan festivities marking the winter solstice and the moment when the sun begins to reverse its long and slippery slide down the sky.
For Christians, 77% of the American people according to a recent Gallup poll, Christmas is the hinge of the world’s fate, the turning point of life. It is the most important thing that ever happened, and we celebrate it every year because it is still happening now. Whether we know it or not, whether we appreciate it or not, we are part of the Christmas Event that has turned history upside down.
There’s a reason why we date the birth of Christ as the year 1 and why traditionally the world’s history was divided into BC, before Christ, and AD, anno domini, the year of the Lord.. (Actually, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us this year, the monk who tried to calculate it seems to have gotten it wrong; Jesus was probably born four to six years “BC”. He also did not know about the use of zero as a number; there is no Year Zero between AD and BC .)
Non-Christians, including the 5% of Americans who adhere to a non-Christian religion and the 18% who either claimed no religion at all or chose not to answer the pollsters, need to know about Christianity too. Religious education has pretty much fallen by the wayside in American life today. That’s a problem in more ways than one, hopefully this blog will help address some of those problems…at least that’s the hope.
I’m not a Roman Catholic or Protestant Christian though I do know of their ways simply because I grew up in a very Protestant part of NYC. Actually I was on the edge were the Protestants and the Catholics met and not being either was a problem but you learn to adapt and I did and finally I got interested as I got older in the differences. Maybe that’s why in the end I did learn about culture and philosophy, classics and literature through the wonderful NYPL, trying to understand what was going on with the world around me and how I fit in. For lack of a better reason, I;ll go with that.
I do know in 6th grade when I learnt that Russians were Orthodox that was a great enlightening moment and from there on I read everything about them, culminating in getting a Russian minor at college.