Friday, January 6, 2012

Special Guest to Honor a Little Observed Holiday

Today is Epiphany. You may be asking, "So? What's Epiphany?"

Epiphany is observed in some parts of the Christian world to recognize the day the wise men came to worship Jesus and offer him their wonderful gifts. Most Protestant denominations don't observe it at all. Catholics will observe it, but to the best of my knowledge, mostly they do so with nothing more than a mass devoted to it.

But this forgotten holiday has a rich tradition. I don't know as much about that tradition as I would like to, but I have a friend who has researched it thoroughly, and actually celebrates it. I have asked her to join us today to share about what Epiphany means to her, and how she and her family observe it.

Please welcome Melissa Jagears.

Celebrating a Forgotten Holiday

“We don’t do anything special for Christmas.” “She doesn’t know who Santa is.” “We celebrate Epiphany.” “I’m not putting up a Christmas Tree.”

All of these sentences have come out of my mouth and earned me some incredulous stares. So what is wrong with me? I got tired of celebrating because everyone else was celebrating and feeling like I had to do it just like everyone else because, well, everyone else did it that way.

Even before I had children, I decided that I wanted to focus on the reason for the holidays, not the trappings of the holidays. Both of my families gather for Christmas, but it’s simply a get-together with a bonus present exchange. I couldn’t imagine after the hubbub to go home and do it all over again, and I don’t ever plan to. So, I decided we would observe an entirely different holiday, make our own traditions, and tailor the focus where we wanted it.

The obvious choice for a generally unobserved religious holiday was Epiphany, King’s Day or Twelfth Night. What is Epiphany? Epiphany means “manifestation” or showing forth of Jesus as divine Son of God. Christmas marks Jesus’s humanity, the Epiphany is to highlight his divinity (Wise men visit, Dove descending at baptism, and wine into water). In the first century church, the only holiday observed was Easter, the second century added Epiphany, the third century added Christmas. The Twelve Days of Christmas refer to the twelve days between Christmas (Dec. 25) and Epiphany (Jan. 6).

The biggest observers of this holiday are Latin American Catholics and the Orthodox Churches in Europe, so I researched all their traditions and then chose the ones I liked most that fit what I wanted to do. Here are the fun things that many of them do to celebrate (Besides liturgical practices):
  • A King’s Day Cake or Bread. A cake is baked with a crown/ring (or other item) inside. Whoever gets the crown gets to be King for the day and the others serve this person.
  • The children take down the Christmas tree that has hidden candy and cookies. The children keep the spoils they find while dismantling the decorated tree. Burning the tree.
  • A procession, usually made up of children dressed as wise men who parade around the neighborhood caroling and carrying the Bethlehem star, some giving away coins or treats to the houses they visit or getting such from the houses they visit to donate to church that typically is the final destination of the procession. Or they bless each house they stop at. Or three men dressed as the Wise men hand things out to the village children.
  • A presentation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or other plays, pageants, and dances.
  • Men scramble into the ice cold water to retrieve something thrown there, or cut out a cross-shaped hole in the ice to be baptized in, bless the water and distribute the blessed water, or just to show off their manliness–predecessor to the Polar Bear Plunge, I assume.
  • Children leave out stockings or shoes for the Wise Men to fill up when they visit, or they fill a box with grass and hay and place under their beds for the Wise Men’s camels which gets replaced with treats.
  • Yule Log, Wassail and other specialty food which they gather together to eat.
I wanted the emphasis to be on Jesus and less on ourselves. But as typical me, I decided I want to do it my way. So here are the things I’ve decided to do with our family:
  • For the Twelve Days of Christmas, I intend to read a book(s) each night about Christmas and its true meaning. For the younger children, I have a nativity set they can play with that I can use to tell them the story.
  • If I ever get suckered into a Christmas tree, we’ll take it down that day.
  • We’ll leave our boots outside the front door and hang a star to guide the wise men to us who will fill them with stocking stuffer items. I never liked Santa, but I like these historic gift givers.
  • The wise men will also leave three gifts per person (one for each traditional “3” wise men):
    • A gift to represent gold which will be money equal to the age of the recipient; however, this gift will not be to keep, it will be used to buy Jesus a gift. The family will decide whether to pool our money together or purchase Jesus a gift individually. We will read Matthew 25 and discuss that giving to poor people, visiting prisoners, etc. is how we give Jesus gifts. Then we’ll brainstorm options, whether purchasing something from Heifer International or similar places, giving the money to or volunteering at the various charities available in our area, or seeing a need and using our money and time to meet it, etc. and make a plan on when and how to do so. Any extra money from piggy banks would certainly be accepted.
    •  A gift representing wisdom aka books (or how-to DVDs, CDs). I limit myself to no more than 3 books per person in this package or I know myself and there’ll be more books than square footage in my house!
    • And a gift or themed package for fun—the typical “big” Christmas gift.
  • Our families have never read the Christmas story, so that was one of the main things I wanted to incorporate—perhaps when the children get older, I will have them write a Christmas play during the 12 days to perform for a nursing home (since we don’t live by any relatives). I really like the idea of a procession of wise men, but I think no one would know what to do with us if we showed up on their lawns singing on January 6th. So, the nursing home/shut-in audience in the future will satisfy my desire to try that aspect and be another service project for a gift to Jesus.
  • I don’t like the king for a day aspect of a King’s Cake because I could see that creating quite a bit of sibling rivalry and focusing on ourselves, so since we are celebrating this day as Jesus’s birthday party, we will bake a birthday cake for Jesus.
  • Getting rid of the cake, er, Game Night with Friends. To share our Jesus birthday cake and spend some time with others, we intend to invite a different family over every year on the evening of Epiphany (or closest weekend evening) to play board games, and will probably purchase a new game every year to accommodate our children’s ages.

I want to challenge you to think about the last few weeks. Did your family focus on the things you wanted to focus on? If not, how will you address it for next year? Life is too short to do what everyone else expects you to do.  Be bold, dare to get stared at with incredulity, make sure you family is making the memories you want to make.

Melissa Jagears is a stay-at-home mom who writes fiction into the wee hours of the night and Andrea's crazy, highly opinionated, socially inept, blog collecting, former college roommate.

If you read Christian Historical Fiction, check out her Inspirational Historical Fiction Index to find those books sorted by setting, decade and other subjects.

If you are interested in frugality, check out the archives of her Making Do With the Not So New blog.

Melissa, thank you so much for telling us about your version of this "forgotten holiday."

To all of my readers out there,

Were you familiar with the name and meaning of the Epiphany holiday? Did or does your family do anything to recognize it? Or was this all new to you?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I confess, the Christmas tree is one of my favorite traditions. When I first read your piece, I was inspired to leave the tree up until today. But with all we have going on this year, Josh had other ideas and wanted it down earlier.

    Maybe next year.

    Thanks again, Melissa.

  2. Melissa and Andrea, I loved this! Yes, as a Catholic we've always honored the feast of the Epiphany, more so two decades ago. People are in such a hurry to put Christmas aside now, mostly because we make such a spectacle of it.

    Our own fault, right?

    So we limit the Holy Day season of old in favor of a holiday "Christmas Shopping" season. We are just a little dorky!

    I love that our church does Christmas hymns right through this weekend. That we celebrate the blessing of a king divine and a human child. That we gather and pray, but you're right, not like we used to.

    Melissa, great ideas! I'm going to play with some of these in our quest to "Simplify Christmas".

    A baby.

    A manger.

    A child of the poor.

    Thank you both for doing this! You guys rock!

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  4. Well, Epiphany celebrations are over.

    And I love the three gifts and boot stuffers thing. So simple and unhectic. Later when they are older and I quit the pretend kings, we might do the 3 gifts, making each one buy for the other and help them make wise choices, I'll cross that road when we get there...

    My girl wanted to pool our money together to buy a Llama since that's her favorite animal (News to me!) and we all dipped into piggy banks to get the extra money. The Heifer Catalog tells you what the family will use it for so that was quite the discussion along with Mat. 25.

    My girl also made the cake and the punch and did the serving for our guests. We told them about Epiphany and enjoyed ourselves.

    The books we've been reading over the 12 days have sparked spiritual discussions with the 5 year old.

    All and all, I'm happy with my new traditions, I'd love for others to join in.

    Andrea, you'll have to celebrate Epiphany next year so you can keep your tree up! :)

    Ruth, I'm glad I gave you some thoughts you might want to incorporate.

    Have Blessed Epiphany!

  5. I've never even heard of Epiphany before, but it sounds like you've found a unique way to celebrate Christ's birth that works for your family and doesn't clutter the special time up with a bunch of materialism and commercialism. So good for you. :)

  6. Thanks for explaining Epiphany.....I (Protestant) did not know much about it! I enjoy your blog, Andrea!