Twelfth Night, Epiphany and Theophany: Christians close Christmas, remember Magi

The journey of The Magi as envisioned by artist James Tissot, who stunned his colleagues in Paris when he felt a deep renewal of his Catholic faith in 1885. This led Tissot to do something that few Western artists had attempted at that point. He traveled to “the Holy Land” in 1886, 1889 and 1896 to sketch detailed studies of the region for his paintings. Today, his huge body of religious art is largely free from copyright restrictions, making them useful for individuals and congregations that enjoy adding visual imagery to their spiritual reflections. Here’s a Wikipedia link to Tissot’s biography.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 5 and THURSDAY, JANUARY 6: Christians worldwide welcome Twelfth Night and Epiphany in Western Christianity, and Theophany (or Divine Manifestation) in Eastern Christianity.

Did you know? Dates and customs vary widely! These festivals have been evolving for many centuries. Epiphany and Theophany customs in some countries actually mingle Eastern and Western Christian traditions—look to Eastern Europe for examples. For Eastern Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar, Theophany occurs on January 19.

Here’s more about these festivals …

TWELFTH NIGHT

Only a century ago, Christmas celebrations were reaching their peak on the night of January 5. Hard to believe? It’s true—the 12th day of Christmas, known better as Twelfth Night, has long been an occasion for special cakes, “misrule” (lively celebrations) and plenty of merrymaking. In the Christian Church, Twelfth Night is Epiphany Eve, as the faithful prepare for the feast celebrating the visitation of the Magi. In some Catholic countries, children anticipate small gifts and candies to be left on the evening of January 5, as the Magi “pass by” on their way to Bethlehem. Songs such as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “I Saw Three Ships” pay homage to the Magi and, respectively, to their relics being transported to Cologne, aboard three ships.

Did you know? George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night. In past centuries, it was common for weddings to be held during Christmastide (the period between Christmas and Epiphany).

In centuries past, the early days of January were filled with plenty of fatty, sugary foods, drinks, parties and gatherings around the table with family and friends. Particularly in medieval and Tudor England, it was custom for a Twelfth Night cake to be served, into which a bean was cooked: the recipient of piece of cake with the bean would rule for the evening. As Twelfth Night ended a winter festival, the Lord of Misrule gained sovereignty. (Wikipedia has details.) For one evening—until midnight—peasants were treated as kings, and kings as peasants. The Lord of Misrule tradition dates back to Celtic and Ancient Roman civilizations.

In Colonial America, the Christmas wreath was left on the door until the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, at which time any edible portions were consumed. In a similar manner, any fruits on Christmas trees were consumed on Twelfth Night. (Interested in the Victorian era’s take on Twelfth Night? Read more at JaneAusten.co.uk.)

EPIPHANY AND THEOPHANY

ON EPIPHANY, Christians worldwide rejoice in the manifestation of Jesus, revealed as God the Son, on the Feast of Epiphany (in Greek, Theophany). Literally “striking appearance,” or “vision of God,” Epiphany and Theophany have been central to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars for centuries. Through Advent, the Western Christian Church anticipated the coming of Jesus, and of course Mary and Joseph were the earliest witnesses. But Christian tradition holds that one key moment in this revelation was the arrival of the Magi—representatives of other nations—when the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place.

In a similar way, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, at this time of year, but Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, complete with parades, parties, king cakes and “visiting” Magi. On the morning of Epiphany in Poland, some children dress in traditional clothing, carols are sung and homes are blessed; in Argentina, many children awake to find gifts left by the “passing” Magi.

In Eastern Orthodox Christian communities, observances are far more elaborate. Epiphany is 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.)

Christmas: Billions of Christians celebrate Christ’s birth

Manger scene with star lit up

Photo by Myriams-Fotos, courtesy of Pixabay

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 25: Sing for joy and ring the bells—it’s Christmas! The Old English Christ’s Mass celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ for Christians worldwide, hailing from snow-covered mountains to sandy beaches, crowded cities to rural fields—and everywhere in between.

Central to the liturgical year, Christmas closes Advent and begins the Twelve Days of Christmastide. Though the exact year of Jesus’ birth can’t be placed, Christian families re-read two Gospels that describe a lowly manger, visiting shepherds, magi and, of course, that mysterious guiding star (now believed to have been a rare alignment of planets). While previously a time of year when winter Solstice was celebrated in the Roman empire, Christians transformed this darkest period of the year and say that Jesus’ coming fulfills ancient prophesy that a “Sun of righteousness” would come, and that his (red) blood and (green) eternal life provide hope to the whole world. Even St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican boasts an impressive mosaic of Christo Sole, Christ the Sun, in its pre-4th-century necropolis.

Earliest evidence of a Christmas celebration centered around Jesus dates to 354 CE, when events took place in Rome (note that the birth of Christ was already being observed at this time by Eastern Christians, on Epiphany). The first Christmas hymns emerged in 4th century Rome, but the Epiphany holiday continued to dominate Christmas through the Middle Ages. During the medieval period, Christmas grew in popularity over Epiphany. During this time, the 40 days prior to Christmas became known as the “forty days of St. Martin”—a tradition that evolved into Advent.

CHRISTMAS DIY: DECORATIONS, RECIPES & PARTY TIPS

Whether your halls are decked to the hilt or boasting a sparse sprig of holly, have no fear—there’s still time to bring cheer to your home! We’ve searched the web and spotted these online gems that are worth a click and a look …

Martha Stewart offers a selection of handmade gift ideas, ornament inspirations and more. After the stockings and wreaths are hung, it’s time to focus on the Christmas meal—an all-important aspect to Christmas in many cultures. In areas of Italy, 12 kinds of fish are served on Christmas Eve (get Italian Christmas recipes here), while in England, fare often includes goose, gravy, potatoes, bread and cider. Whether Midnight Mass interrupts your menu or not, don’t forget dessert—American cookies, traditional pudding, fruit cakes and mince pies. (Taste of Home and AllRecipes offer everything from appetizer to dessert recipes.)

Cooking for guests with special requests? Find a gluten-free menu and a vegetarian menu from Huffington Post. In Malta, a chocolate and chestnut beverage is served after the 12 a.m. Christmas services.

DID YOU KNOW?

Sancte Claus was retroactively named the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam (the Dutch name for New York City) in 1809

• President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday in the United States in 1870. Five years later, the first American Christmas card was produced

• Charles Dickens sought to recreate Christmas as a family centered holiday of generosity and secularity. Unlike modern-day Europe and U.S., workers in Dickens’ day did not get “days off” in their work schedules. In addition to campaigning for a full-day December 25 holiday in A Christmas Carol, Dickens was one of the leading British activists for Sunday-holiday laws in the UK that would give workers a weekly sabbath off work. So, there was a major political campaign behind Dickens’ fanciful tales.

Las Posadas: Hispanic Christians await Nativity with processions, community, food

Las Posadas music

Music for Las Posadas. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 16: The Hispanic countdown to Christmas officially begins tonight with Posadas Navidenas (or, more simply, Las Posadas) across Mexico, in Guatemala and in regions of the United States. Tantalizing dishes, merry carols and the story of the nativity has been bringing together communities in Mexico for more than 400 years in a beloved tradition that lasts nine nights and ends on Dec. 24. Each night of Las Posadas, a small, candlelit procession travels through a neighborhood, its participants dressed like Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds, reenacting the search for a safe place to welcome the infant Jesus. Often, musicians follow the group, as do accompanying members of the community. (Note: According to news reports, this tradition will be adjusted in many communities in 2021, in accordance with continuing pandemic restrictions and/or requirements.)

Did you know? As a learning resource, NBC News suggests Posadas Navidenas as one of five Latino holiday traditions to share with children.

Spanish for “lodging” or “accommodation,” Posada recalls the difficulty Mary and Joseph encountered on their journey. Posada describes the events of Las Posadas: as the procession stops at designated houses and asks permission to stay, it is prearranged that all homeowners turn away the visitors until the host family is reached. At the home of the host family (or, in some regions, a church), the visitors are welcomed inside, and all present kneel before a nativity. Following prayers, tamales and ponche navideno are served, washed down with rompope, a Mexican drink with a taste similar to eggnog. Children may hit a five- or seven-pointed piñata, often filled with dried fruits, sugar sticks, candies and nuts. Often, Christmas carols are also sung by all. (Learn traditional carols and more at The Other Side of the Tortilla.)

FROM AN AZTEC WINTER CELEBRATION TO A NEIGHBORHOOD EVENT

Roots of the nine-day Las Posadas likely lie in the Aztec winter celebration of the sun god, which took place over nine nights; when the native peoples of Mexico were converting to Catholicism, church leaders encouraged nine nights of devotion to the parents of Jesus—focusing each evening on a month of Mary’s pregnancy.

Revelries outside of Mexico can vary: in the Philippines, Posadas highlights a Panunuluyan pageant, a type of play portraying the story of Mary and Joseph and recited in a local language. In Nicaragua, the event lasts only one day. In the United States, several regions hold some type of Las Posadas celebration, most often with carols, reenactments and plenty of Mexican food.

DIY: RECIPES & MAKING A PINATA

For recipes for tamales, rompope and more, check out an article from the Washington Post or this Pinterest page.

Advent: Western Christians usher in season of anticipation for Christ’s birth

Advent wreath

A wreath for Advent. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 28: The season of Advent begins today for over a billion Western Christians, as the church enters a new liturgical year and begins the season whose lighted wreaths and prayers anticipate the birth of Jesus.

On each of the four Sundays leading to Christmas, Christians light a new candle on the Advent wreath: three purple, and one rose-colored one. The rose-colored candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, and in some churches, a white pillar candle in the middle of the wreath is lit in Christmas Eve. (Note: In Protestant churches, Advent candles are often red, and in Anglican and Lutheran churches, they are typically blue.) Many congregations are draped in purple or blue, symbolizing hope and repentance. During Advent, Christians look to both Christ’s ancient birth and the Second Coming.

Note: Eastern Christians began the Nativity Fast—a strict, 40-day fast leading to the Nativity—on November 15.

Advent calendars have rapidly been gaining popularity in recent years, even amongst secular Christmas celebrants. Still, traditionally faithful families may fashion their own Advent wreaths of evergreens and candles. Jesse Trees, used in many churches to provide necessary items for the needy during the season, have also been steadily gaining popularity.

Interested in making a DIY Advent wreath? Find information on making a base, candle-holders, greens and more at Catholic Culture.

Nativity Fast: Eastern Orthodox Christians begin period of preparation for Christ’s birth

Nativity Orthodox Christian

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 15: While the American Thanksgiving has not have arrived yet, millions of Orthodox Christians around the world are turning toward the season of Jesus’s birth—which they refer to formally as the Nativity—with, today, the start of the Nativity Fast. For many centuries, Eastern Christians have prepared for the Nativity with a 40-day Nativity Fast.

Note: The variance between starting on (what today is) November 15 and 28 stems from traditional methods of keeping the calendar through many centuries. Some Orthodox church headquarters in the U.S. now list both dates on their websites, because parish leaders know that some families who attend prefer to follow one calendar, while others may follow calendars that match relatives in their countries of origin.

Two periods comprise the Nativity Fast (the dates of which are stated, here, per the Gregorian calendar): Nov. 15-Dec. 19, and Dec. 20-24. December 20 launches the Forefeast of the Nativity, with chanting of Nativity hymns each day through Dec. 24 (Paramony). On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian church—no solid food is consumed until the first star is observed in the evening sky; afterward, the fast is joyously broken. Many then head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, while others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

Did you know? The Nativity Fast thematically focuses on glorification of the Incarnation of God; the Western Advent focuses on the two comings (or advents) of Jesus. 

Traditional Orthodox fasting is no simple task: It means giving up meat and dairy, in addition to fish, wine and oil (fish, wine and oil are, however, permitted on specific days). Yet Orthodox teaching instructs that fasting be undertaken with gladness and in a sense of earnest anticipation—in the promise that these devout preparations will deepen reflections on the moment when God became human. Fasting for Orthodox Christians includes abstinence from foods, negative emotions and greed. Prayer and almsgiving complement the fasting period.

THE PURPOSE OF FASTING: A SYNOPSIS

What is the purpose of fasting, according to the Eastern Orthodox Christian church? Following is pastoral advice from the website of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese for America:

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example. 

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.

We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together. Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now. 

PROPHETS AND THE AFTERFEAST

Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

On December 25 (or January 7), the Feast of the Nativity, fasting is forbidden; a fast-free period, or Afterfeast, lasts through January 4—or later, depending on one’s calendar.

Assumption, Dormition of Mary: Christians pay tribute to the Blessed Virgin, Theotokos

Icon of the Dormition by El Greco, 16th century (Cathedral of the Dormition, Ermoupolis).

Virgin Mary Assumption

An image of the Assumption of Mary, portrayed in a window in the Church of St Aloysius in Somers Town, London. Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flikr

SUNDAY, AUGUST 15: It’s been 70 years since Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith, and today, Catholics are part of the observance that both branches of Christianity—West and East—acknowledge, in an event that is known as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary / the Dormition of the Theotokos. Two names for the same event, both the Assumption and the Dormition proclaim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into heaven in body and soul.

NEWS 2021: In what is being called a “cultural revival,” the Virgin Mary is rapidly becoming a type of icon for a younger global generation, as clothing, hats and more, all featuring images of the Virgin Mary, become increasingly more popular. Seen by some as a figure for values like social justice, the Virgin Mary is being called a “relatable” figure of faith. While the iconic popularity is controversial, Catholic author and University of California, Berkeley lecturer Kaya Oakes, in an article at Broadview.org, voiced no surprise at the new attention paid to Mary: “Mary represents this side of God that is nurturing and will stay with you when you’re in pain,” Oakes said. “We’re coming out of this really traumatic phase in world history with the pandemic, and people have needed images of God that were more resonant with that compassionate, rather than judgmental, side of the divine.”

MARY THROUGH THE MILLENNIA

While no evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. The Church points to passages in Revelations, Genesis and Corinthians, to mention of a woman “caught between good and evil” and to those “fallen asleep” after Christ’s resurrection. Theologians and Christians have pointed out that a woman so close to Jesus during his earthly life would have naturally been assumed into Heaven, to be with him there.

Apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since the 4th century, and teachings of the Assumption have been widespread since the 5th century. Theological debate continued in the centuries following, and though most Catholic Christians had held belief in the Assumption for quite some time, it wasn’t until 70 years ago—on November 1, 1950—that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith.

EAST AND WEST: THE DORMITION VS. THE ASSUMPTION

In the East: Eastern Christians believe that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, and that her soul was received by Christ upon death. Three days following, Mary’s body was resurrected, and she was taken up into heaven, bodily.

In the West: The Catholic Church teaches as dogma that the Virgin Mary, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Within Protestantism, views often differ. 

A HEAVENLY BIRTHDAY

To many Christians, Eastern and Western, the Assumption is also the Virgin Mary’s heavenly birthday. Mary’s acceptance into the glory of Heaven is viewed as the symbol of Christ’s promise that all devoted Christians will be received into Heaven, too. The feast of the Assumption is a public holiday in many countries, from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany to Italy, Romania and Spain. The day doubles as Mother’s Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.

No details specify the day or year of Mary’s Assumption, though it is believed that when Mary died, the Apostles flocked to her bedside. At the moment of her death, Jesus Christ descended, and carried her soul to Heaven.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Sacred Heart of Jesus: Catholic Christians reflect on divine love of Christ

Sacred Heart of Jesus image

Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, JUNE 11: In prayerful reflection, Catholics focus today on the depth of divine love for the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Though general devotion to the Sacred Heart has been popular since the 11th century, specific devotions came into being after the revelation of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation nun of the 17th century whose visions of Christ revealed the depths of his love and the promises made to those who consecrate themselves and make reparations to his Sacred Heart. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque appealed to the faithful to focus their devotions on the overwhelming love of Christ.

Interested in a prayer of consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, written by St. Margaret Mary? Read it here.

SACRED HEART: FROM ST. MARGARET MARY TO POPE PIUS IX

Since St. Margaret Mary’s revelation, devotion to the Sacred Heart has expanded around the world. Pope Pius IX instituted an obligatory feast for the Sacred Heart for the entire Catholic Church in 1856. The Catechism, quoting Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1956), states, “[Jesus] has loved us all with a human heart. For this reason, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, ‘is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that … love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings’ without exception” (#478).

Since 2002, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus has also been the Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests.