12 Days of Christmas end in revelry and maybe a splash

An Epiphany procession and a leap into blessed waters (usually by eager young men in the crowd) is a longstanding Orthodox tradition for the end of the 12 Days of Christmas. Still practiced in some areas of Greece and a few places in the United States.FRIDAY, JANUARY 6: Christmas may be a distant memory for millions of Americans—but the traditional Christmas season is just reaching its climax. Twelfth Night may be known simply as a play by William Shakespeare to most Americans, but the festive traditions are associated with Christmas and Epiphany and the close of this larger celebration. Here’s the whole story ….


Centuries-old Twelfth Night traditions continue in some communities. Usually these observances amount to festive parties. But in West Sussex in the UK each year, The Broardwood Morris Men make an elaborate night-time journey in full costume to carry out a traditional Wassailing of the Apple Trees. The custom’s origins involve families hoping for a bountiful harvest in the spring, so a Twelfth Night procession under torches anoints the trees and the soil around them with cider. The ritual is so elaborate that even cider-soaked toast is hung from tree branches in the traditional belief that birds will eat the toast and carry away any evil spirits.THURSDAY, JANUARY 5: While Epiphany, or Theophany, processions and a quick dip into blessed waters are customs largely associated with Greece and other similar Orthodox cultures—Twelfth Night’s heyday was in England many centuries ago. In 2012, the phrase mainly summons associations with William Shakespeare. The Wikipedia summary of the lively comedy points out that Shakespeare himself originally named the play What You Will, assuming that theatergoers would be very familiar with the wild merriment that would unfold. However, the words Twelfth Night were quickly added to clearly signal the play’s subject to potential ticket buyers. The idea behind Twelfth Night is a kind of mid-winter topsy-turvy occasion for busting through social conventions and closing out the 12 Days of Christmas with a bash. The idea was common in many centuries-old traditions: Sometimes called Feast of Fools, ordinary folk could enjoy overturning all conventions for one wild evening.

Some communities still celebrate this event. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, Christ Lutheran Church is marking three decades of an elaborate Twelfth Night festival to mark Epiphany and the close of the Christmas season. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a local theater group is actually debuting a new run of Shakespeare’s colorful play on Twelfth Night this week, according to a regional news site.


Depending on your religious affiliation, you may have celebrated Epiphany in New Year’s Day worship services. Some Protestant denominations move the observance to the Sunday just before Epiphany, even though this year that Sunday was nearly a week prior to the actual observance.

Throughout Western Christianity, Epiphany recalls the visitation of the Magi to the infant Jesus. However, in the East, Christian observances and liturgies are far more elaborate. Epiphany is usually called Theophany and also commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Because all three branches of the Holy Trinity were present at Jesus’ baptism, according to church teaching, this event marks the moment at which Jesus was fully recognized as the Son of God. (Wikipedia has details.)

Epiphany ranks among the earliest of Christian feasts with a first documented reference in 361 CE. As calendars were rare throughout most of the past two millennia, Epiphany served a practical purpose. It ws an important occasion each year when priests publicly proclaimed the date of Easter for the new year. What began in some places as an eight-day feast has now been reduced to one day; still, it remains common for priests to bless Epiphany water on Jan. 6 and for parishioners to ingest, sprinkle or swim in the holy water.

This can become quite a vivid event! Orthodox priests bless both a Baptismal font and a “living” body of water, and even in countries with frigid temperatures in the winter months, it’s not uncommon for the faithful to dive into the freezing—but blessed—water. (Check out global photos from last year’s Epiphany, from The Guardian.) According to Greek custom, a priest will throw a crucifix into the “living” water, and any number of swimmers will attempt to find the cross. The lucky swimmer who finds the cross then returns it to the priest, in exchange for a blessing. (The largest Epiphany event of this kind in the Western Hemisphere, performed for more than a century, happens annually in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Read more from CBS News.)

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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