January 6: Epiphany
After the last drummer has drummed on the 12th day of Christmas, it’s the day of Epiphany, which celebrates the Adoration of the Christ child by the Magi aka the Wise Men aka the Three Kings. In some denominations of Christianity, this day also celebrates Jesus’s baptism and his first miracle at the wedding at Cana.
January 5 is known as Epiphany Eve, or Twelfth Night. For a lot of cultures, this is the big gift-giving, parade-having holiday rather than Christmas.
Things that happen January 5-6 include, but are not limited to:
- In many cultures, especially in Spain and Latin American countries, the Three Kings come through town distributing presents and leading a parade. The Kings, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar (spellings vary widely, but these are the most common) go through town writing their initials in chalk over the doorframes of houses: C+M+B. This is also an abbreviation for “Christus mansionem benedicat,” which means “May Christ bless this house.”
- In the Alpine regions of Northern Italy, a young man, an old man, a young woman, and an old woman draw out and capture the Badalisc, a dragon who lives in the woods around their village. After a prolonged duel with witches and a hunchback, the Badalisc is led to the town square where he has a villager read off a list of grievances he has with the town written in verse. Then everyone eats polenta.
- Orthodox priests in Greece and elsewhere bless the waters by throwing a cross into the nearest body of living water. Young men will then dive into the water, racing to be the first to retrieve it and receive the blessing of a year’s worth of luck. This act drives away the kallikantzaroi, mischievous goblins who make trouble for the Greek people during the twelve days of Christmas, and they go back to trying to saw down Yggdrasil, the world tree.
- The last of the Yule Lads goes back to the lava fields.
- La Befana, the friendly witch of Epiphany, flies through the skies of Italy and shimmies down chimneys, delivering presents to good children and coal to bad ones (and sweeping the floors). The day of Epiphany, she can be found in the town square, playing accordion, juggling, dancing, and singing off-key.
- Perchta leads her wild hunt of the souls of unbaptized children through the streets, frightening off evil spirits by rattling chains and ringing bells.
- Benito ends his Advent calendar, and stops his Christmas posting for another year.
That’s it, everyone. Whichever day you celebrate, however you celebrate, if you do at all, I hope you have found something of value the last six weeks. Thanks for joining me, everyone.
January 1: St Basil’s Day
In addition to being the first day of the new year, the first of January is a day of gift-giving in several parts of the world. One of these places is Greece, where children are visited by Saint Basil the Great on the first of the year.
From my forthcoming book:
Saint Basil of Caesarea, also known as Basil the Great, was a Greek bishop in Cappadocia, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), who lived in the fourth century AD (he was born shortly before Saint Nicholas died). He was one of the most influential theologians of all time due to his fierce opposition to heresies and his many writings on Christian philosophy, which led to him receiving the title of “Ouranophantor,” or “revealer of the mysteries of heaven.”
Although he was known for a short temper which he displayed against heretics, and even against the Roman emperor himself (the emperor Valens asked Basil to compromise with a faction of heretics and Basil staunchly refused. When the emperor said no one had spoken to him like that before, Basil replied, “Perhaps you have never yet had to deal with a bishop.”), Basil was even more famous for his generosity and compassion. He personally selected priests who would not be persuaded into corruption by wealth, and criticized government officials who did not adhere to their duty of providing justice for the people.
But probably the most famous story of Saint Basil comes from his conflict with an earlier emperor, one who was known as Julian the Apostate because he had tried to turn Rome away from Christianity and back to the ancient pagan religion they had left behind. Basil and Julian had met each other as young men studying in Athens. Julian had never liked Basil, and so when he grew up to become the emperor of Rome, he put great pressure on Caesarea, where Basil was the bishop.
Julian threatened to crush the people of Caesarea with a huge army due to an argument he had had with Basil. The poor people of Caesarea knew they were in great danger, and so they amassed all of their gold, jewels, and other precious possessions in order to present them to the greedy Roman emperor. However, when Basil presented these treasures to the emperor’s messenger, the saint’s harsh words and the willingness of the destitute people of Caesarea to sacrifice everything they had greatly embarrassed the messenger, and he left without collecting payment. (The emperor himself died in battle soon after.)
With the payment uncollected, Basil found himself surrounded by piles of gold and jewels and with no idea what belonged to whom that he might return them to their owners. His solution was this: he had each piece of treasure baked into a pie, which he then distributed to the people of Caesarea. Miraculously, when each person cut into the pie, they found inside exactly the treasure that had belonged to them.
This great miracle is re-enacted in Greece and elsewhere each Saint Basil’s Day (January 1), when a vasilopita (Basil’s pie) is baked with a coin inside, and slices are cut for everyone present, plus slices for Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saint Basil, the Church, the house, the traveler, the visitor, the poor, and the Kallikantzaroi. Whoever gets the piece with the coin receives a special blessing or gift.
Each January 1, Saint Basil travels the Hellenic world, touching dead branches with his staff and causing them to grow again, and distributing presents to children all over Greece, including the greatest present of all: wisdom. As Saint Basil said: “A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”
December 28: Feast of the Holy Innocents
As the Magi followed the star they had seen in the east, they made their way to Judea, where they were welcomed by Herod the Great, the Roman king of Judea. The Magi informed Herod that they were looking for the child born king of the Jews, and Herod directed them toward Bethlehem and told them to report back to him if they found this new king.
The Magi, of course, found the baby Jesus, but were warned by an angel not to return to Herod with news. Herod, enraged that he was to be replaced as king of Judea, ordered every child in Bethlehem under the age of two to be slaughtered. Based on estimates of Bethlehem’s population at that time (ca 1000 people), this would have amounted to about twenty children. (The baby Jesus is preserved as an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and warns them to flee into Egypt.)
The fifth century Roman writer Macrobius adds the detail that, leaving no stone unturned and no baby unmurdered, Herod had his own young son killed. The emperor Augustus is said to have reacted to this news by saying, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
The slain infants are known in some churches as the Holy Innocents, and some churches consider them the earliest martyrs for Christ. The Massacre of the Holy Innocents is commemorated by western churches on December 28, Syriac churches on the 27, and the Eastern Orthodox church on the 29.
In many Spanish-speaking countries, December 28 is known as Innocents’ Day and is a day of pranks, much like April Fools Day. Friends pull pranks known as inocentadas on each other and claim that their victims shouldn’t be mad, as on this day the pranksters are innocent of any sin.
The Massacre of the Innocents is remembered through a carol known as the Coventry Carol, the only remaining song from a 16th century mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors:
Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his owne sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
December 26: Saint Stephen’s Day
In addition to being known as the secular holiday of Boxing Day, the day after Christmas is also the feast day of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Many modern people may be most familiar with this feast from the well-known Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.”
Here’s some info on the good king from my forthcoming book:
Saint Wenceslaus, also spelled Wenceslas, known in his native language of Czech as Svatý Václav, was the duke of Bohemia (roughly the area of Central Europe known today as the Czech Republic) from the year 921 until his death in 935. Although he was only a duke in his lifetime, the Holy Roman Emperor made Wenceslaus a king after his death, because during his life he had been so kind and brave. In the Middle Ages, Wenceslaus was held up as a golden example of what they called a rex justus, or righteous king. That is why we know him best today as Good King Wenceslas.
The best known example of Wenceslaus’s selflessness came on the night of a certain Feast of St. Stephen (the day after Christmas), when he saw a poor man struggling to gather firewood in the midst of a winter storm. He summoned his page, and together they gathered up food, wine, and firewood, and set out through the blizzard to find and help this man. As they pressed through the roaring winter wind, the page found that he had lost all his strength and could go no farther in the cold. Wenceslaus told him to take heart: if the page would only step where the duke himself had stepped, he would find himself warmed. And it was true: from the footprint of every step the mighty saint took rose light and warmth. In this way, the two men made their way to help the poor man return home safely, now with food, drink, and fuel.
Sadly, the kindly duke was murdered by his brother at a young age, so we don’t know what kind deeds he could have performed later in life. However, it is said that Wenceslaus’s spirit is only sleeping. In the time that his land of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) is in the greatest danger, the statue of Wenceslaus in the city of Prague will come to life, ride his horse to the Charles Bridge, where he will find the sword of the great Czech hero, Bruncvík, and with this sword he will raise his army, which waits for him, sleeping in the mountain Blaník. So even now, King Wenceslaus is watching over his people.
Even though Wenceslaus is not a gift-bringer at Christmas like Saint Nicholas, the spirit of generosity he showed on St. Stephen’s Day is reflected in many countries around the world on the day after Christmas, where it is often known as Boxing Day. On this day, many people who are fortunate enough to have a lot take the time to give to those less fortunate than themselves. Perhaps if you yourself were to set aside this day to help the needy, you would find, like King Wenceslaus’s page of old, that “you who will now bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing”!
Anonymous asked: What's up with Boxing Day? My understanding is that it's from when English aristocrats would give their servants the day off after Christmas, and that now it's kind of like Labor Day in the US (a celebration of the Working Man). Is that true? Are there non-British-Commonwealth places that have Boxing Day?
It sounds like you’ve pretty much got it. It is traditionally a day of giving money and gifts to those in service positions, going back to the Middle Ages, with the origin of the term “boxing” possibly referring the box of alms collected for those in need, and it is celebrated primarily in British Commonwealth nations, where it has become a secular bank holiday very similar to Labor Day. People use it to shop and watch sports.
That’s about it, as far as I know.
highway62 asked: Truly you are an embodiment of the season, for your even-mannered and polite reply to someone who might not have deserved it. My hat is off to you, sir. Merry Christmas.
Christmas can be a difficult and painful time for a lot of people. I don’t need to make it worse by yelling at some person because they’re grumpy on the internet.
Not everything is for everybody, and not everyone is going to like everything I like. All I can hope is that they do find something that makes them happy.
What could be truer to the spirit of Christmas than that?
Merry Christmas, everyone.
I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.
—Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
winskp said: Is there anything really interesting you might like to share about warm weather Christmas mythology? I mean, most of us know all the good snow stories, but what characters, traditions, customs come from places where Christmas comes during the summer?
Well, there’s not a lot to say as far as gift-givers go. African countries who have a gift-giver usually just use the traditions of whatever European countries colonized them. South American countries usually have either the baby Jesus, the Three Kings, or Papa Noel, who is just Father Christmas, except he comes in a helicopter or whatever. Australia is just Santa Claus, except sometimes he’s surfing or wearing flippy-floppies.
The best tradition I know of is how everyone roller skates to midnight mass in Venezuela.
Anonymous asked: You mentioned in the Krampus writeup that Christmas is a time when the veil between worlds is thin, leading to all kinds of ghostly activity. What are your favorite Christmas ghosts or spectral folk tales?
It was/is believed that anyone born during the Christmas season would become a werewolf as punishment for trying to upstage Christ’s birth, and so werewolves were associated with Christmas for a while.
Greece is overrun in the Christmas season by countless goblins called kallikantzaroi, who frighten people, make trouble, and do dookies in your food.
In the Victorian era, particularly the early parts, people felt the world was full of fairies and witches at this time. In Scandinavia, there was always fear of trolls during Christmas.
Here are some literary Christmas ghost tales you might enjoy:
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
A Kidnapped Santa Claus by L Frank Baum
December 24: Candle-Stealer arrives
The last of the Yule Lads is here. Now you only need to wait two weeks until they’re all gone.
The last Lad to arrive is Kertasníkir, the Candle-Stealer, and he arrives on December 24. In the olden days, candles were very expensive, and it would have been a very rare thing for a candle to be given to a child. However, at Christmastime there is very little daylight in Iceland, and so children would have been given the uncommon treat of a candle of their own to light their way. The Candle-Stealer follows children around in the dark and waits for just the right moment to steal away their candles. But he doesn’t use them to light his way, no; candles used to be made from tallow (animal fat), and so this little mountain troll will gobble the candles up. Finally, on January 6, the day of Epiphany, all of the Yule Lads will be gone, but only until next year!
Let me speak seriously for a moment: