Epiphany occurs in the Christian calendar on January 6. It signifies the event of the Magi, or Wise Men, visiting the baby Jesus, and is known in some Latin cultures as Three Kings Day. In the Eastern (Orthodox and Oriental) churches, it is known as the Feast of Theophany (God Manifest), commemorating Jesus’ baptism with the attendant appearance of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the voice of God the Father. This story is recounted in all four Gospels of the New Testament. This date is also tied to Jesus’ miracle of changing the water to wine at the Wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John, Chapter 2.
Christmas vs. Advent
So, the 12 Days of Christmas don’t end at Christmas, Advent does. Instead, the 12 days start with Christmas and end with Epiphany. These 12 days are sometimes called Christmastide. The subsequent “season” of Epiphany lasts from January 6 through the day before Lent. Some Latin American and European cultures extend this season to February 2 or Candlemas.
HISTORY OF NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS
As we mentioned earlier, New Year’s Day celebrations began in pre-Christian times, beginning with the Babylonians in March but changed to January by the Romans. Where did we get the idea of New Year’s Resolutions and why at the beginning of the year?
The month of January gets its name from Janus, the two-faced god who looks backward into the old year and forwards into the new. Janus was also the patron and protector of arches (Ianus in Latin), transitions, time, gates, doors, doorways, endings, and beginnings. He was also the patron of bridges, and we see this statue (pictured at left,) set on the bridge Ponte Fabricio which crosses the Tiber River in Rome to Tiber Island, where it survives from its original construction in 62 BC during the time of Julius Caesar. Even today it is believed that if you touch the Janus head as you cross the bridge, it will bring good fortune. (The followers of the goddess Juno have a competing claim to the month of January, according to according to ancient Roman farmers’ almanacs.)
The custom of setting “New Year’s resolutions” began during this period in Rome two millennia ago, as they made such resolutions with a moral flavor: mostly to be good to others. But when the Roman Empire took Christianity as its official state religion in the 4th century, these moral intentions were replaced by prayers and fasting. For example, Christians chose to observe the Feast of the Circumcision on January 1 in place of the revelry otherwise indulged in by those who did not share the faith. This replacement had varying degrees of success over the centuries, and Christians hesitated to observe some of the New Year practices associated with honoring the pagan god Janus.
History of Telemachus: the Monk who Ended the Roman Gladiatorial Games
January 1, A.D. 404 marked the last known gladiatorial games in Rome. What part did an obscure Christian monk from the East play in this epic change in Roman entertainment? This is the story of St. Telemachus whose festival is celebrated today and has been remembered throughout the last 1600 years. You may have never heard of the name, or you know it as the name of the son of Homer’s Odysseus (Ulysses) who was tutored and protected by Mentor while his father was away fighting the Trojan War. Here’s the background of the little-known monk.
The church historian Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria, first told the story in the 5th century in his succinctly titled Ecclesiastical History, a History of the Church in 5 Books from A.D. 322 to the Death of Theodore of Mopsuestia A.D. 427. Theodoret relates how a monk from the East named Telemachus came to Rome and the gladiatorial games when:
“After gazing upon the combat from the amphitheatre, he descended into the arena, and tried to separate the gladiators. The sanguinary spectators, possessed by the demon who delights in the effusion of blood, were irritated at the interruption of their cruel sports, and stoned him who had occasioned the cessation.”
HISTORY OF NEW YEAR’S DAY
We have the ancient Romans to thank for celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1. It wasn’t always that way. Previous civilizations celebrated it in March, to observe the “new year” of growth and fertility. Before calendars existed the time between seed sowing and harvesting was considered a cycle or a year. But the Romans moved the date of New Year to January 1, as I’ll explain below, but first a little on calendars.
Calendar gets its name from the name of the first day of a month in the Roman (Latin) calendar: kalendae
HISTORY OF CHILDERMAS
Childermas, from an Old English word meaning the Mass of the Infants, is the festival in the church calendar begun in the fifth century — celebrated in the Western Church on December 28 and in the Eastern Church on December 29. It commemorates the date when King Herod ordered the massacre of the children under two years of age in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus, who “was born King of the Jews” according to the Wise Men as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 2. How many were killed? Some traditional claims involve as many as 6,000 or 14,000 or even 144,000, though based on the population of male children in Bethlehem at that time, a few dozen is more likely.
Did this actually happen, do we have any evidence from outside the Gospel story?
HISTORY OF THE FEAST OF ST. JOHN
December 27, since the 5th century, has marked the day in the church calendar for celebrating the life of St. John the Evangelist and is known as the Feast of St. John. We’ve already mentioned that the day before, December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen. Next, on December 28 is the Feast of The Holy Innocents, referring to those babies killed by King Herod the Great in Bethlehem.
Which St. John is celebrated in this feast? It is not John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus; rather it’s the young disciple of Christ, known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Tradition holds that he is the author of the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John (I, II, and III John) as well as the author of the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse. He’s also known as John the Apostle, John the Divine, John the Theologian, and John of Patmos. Why?
HISTORY OF BOXING DAY
Boxing Day is a holiday unfamiliar to many Americans, but it is well known among the countries of the British Commonwealth. It is celebrated on December 26 as a public holiday in the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, and parts of Australia.
While some believe it has to do with the need to dispose of empty boxes on the day following Christmas, it has nothing to do with that, nor has it anything to do with pugilistic fisticuffs. It is the second day of Christmastide, and some European countries celebrate it as “Second Christmas Day,” but there’s more.
St. Stephen’s Day
In Britain, Boxing Day is also known by the name St. Stephen’s Day. Stephen, a man “possessing great wisdom and full of the Spirit,” was the first Christian martyr as recorded in Chapter 7 of the Book of the Acts of The Apostles in the Bible. He was one of the first deacons or ministers of the early church, serving table to the Hellenistic (non-Jewish) members of the church who were being neglected.
HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914
Over a century ago across the 400-mile battle line of Europe, World War I had claimed almost a million lives over the previous 5 months of battle. The Great War, “the war to end all wars” was about to experience something almost unheard of in two thousand years of warfare: a temporary though unofficial truce. As Christmas Eve fell in the trenches of Flanders Field, German soldiers had erected Christmas Trees with lighted candles.
At about 8:30 pm as the firing of guns began to subside the Germans began to sing “Stille Nacht.” The song was originally written in German, but the British soldiers knew the English words to “Silent Night.” Soldiers wrote in diaries during this time to tell of local armistices established between both sides, occurring across dozens of other locations along the battle line as well. German and British soldiers left their trenches. They crossed “No Man’s Land” to meet and exchanged gifts they’d received from home: chocolate, tobacco, alcohol, articles of clothing, buttons, badges, and hats. The British soldiers bartered tins of plum pudding and tobacco sent to them by King George. The Germans had pipes with a picture of the Crown Prince.
HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS EVE: POLISH CHRISTMAS WAFER
My friend Phil gave me Opłatek, or Christmas wafers as part of his Polish Christmas tradition. This practice is now common in many countries across Eastern Europe — among Lithuanians, Czechs, and Slovaks — but in Poland it is a legacy from the past to celebrate the vigil of Christmas Eve, going back to the 10th century. During the 17th century, it spread from there, and was emblematic — especially since the 19th-century partitioning of Poland — of the country becoming independent again. During WWII, families would send pieces of oplatek to relatives dispersed around the world wherever they were.
Each wafer is embossed with an image from the Christmas story, usually the nativity scene or the Star of Bethlehem. An empty place is set at the family table in memory of ancestors, departed loved ones, and the Unseen Guest, Jesus Christ. There is high hope that the “Unexpected Guest” will come and bless the gathering. As Christmas Eve marks the end of the Advent fast, to be followed by the 12 Days of Christmas, at the start of dinner just after grace, the male head of the house takes the wafer and expresses his hopes for his wife in the year to come. It might be good health or a request for forgiveness for his shortcomings. His wife breaks off a piece and eats it, then returning the blessing and shares the wafer with her husband. The ceremony continues with older relatives, guests, and children from oldest to youngest.