Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy Epiphany: Another Look at the American Christmas Tradition

Today marks a holiday that is relatively little known in the United States, that of Epiphany, noted and celebrated in various ways in many other countries.  The day marks the visit of the Wise Men or Magi to the infant Christ, foretold in Isaiah, and is thus the ‘Twelfth Day of Christmas’.  (Orthodox churches also add to it as the anniversary of the baptism of Christ, and marks the first recorded miracle of Christ at the wedding in Cana.)  Sometimes, when the subject of the old carol of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ (the ‘Partridge in a Pear Tree’ song) comes up, I have occasionally enquired of those around me about the significance of the twelve days.  I typically receive a reply that they have no idea what that means (nor do they understand the meaning of all those leaping lords, milking maids, and golden rings – nor do I, other than it makes for a catchy little tune).

Epiphany initially had no significance in the early church, nor for that matter did Christmas.  Clement of Alexandria derided those who would assign the birth of Christ to the end of the year, as the actual date was even then unknown.  Clement’s great student, the prolific Origen, makes no mention of the subject at all.  It is thought that the ancient celebrations that mark the end of the year, created by the Romans but probably earlier, were co-opted by the early competitive Christians.  These early Christians also had a tendency to ascribe significant events to coincide with the calendar of Jewish holidays – they were, after all, a sect of Judaism at the time – taking up the idea started by the fact that the death and resurrection occurred during Passover. 

The celebration of the birth of Christ during this time of year nevertheless continued, ebbing and flowing, over the centuries, never really receiving the sanction of the established Church, but Epiphany was designated as an official holiday, marking the recognition of Christ by the Gentiles, in the form of the Magi, as the savior of Mankind and son of God, and it ranked with Easter and Pentecost as one of the three significant holy days of the Church.  Christmas celebrations were often tolerated, but when they began to get out of hand, marked more by revelry and ‘debauchery’ than by pious remembrance, the Church would condemn them.  Oliver Cromwell outlawed them outright. 

The early English colonists coming to America carried with them the cultural distinctions that manifested themselves in the English Civil War.  The New England Pilgrims and Puritans (there is a difference) enacted laws which forbade the observance of Christmas; it was even illegal to mention St Nicholas.  In the Virginia settlement of Jamestown though, John Smith noted that the settlement celebrated Christmas in 1607.  The Christmas tradition continued in the South as a family event and the American tradition was preserved there until it began to expand into the rest of the United States in the early nineteenth century, while Epiphany, still observed to some extent within the Episcopal Church (successor to the English Anglican Church after the Revolution) and some Congregational churches, waned in significance over time.

Other influences also began to warm the Christmas season in America: the Dutch influence in and around the New Amsterdam (York) area introduced Sinter Klaus.  The legend grew and was expanded upon by Washington Irving and Clement Moore into Santa Claus.  German settlers, particularly the wave that came after the various revolutions in Europe after 1848 into Texas and Pennsylvania among other areas, brought with them the Christmas tree.

As the nation became more settled, cosmopolitan, and mercantile, the importance of Christmas as a boon to the economy grew as well.  Franklin Roosevelt, responding to merchants who wanted to extend the shopping season before Christmas, unilaterally proclaimed (as was his habit) that Thanksgiving would be the third Thursday of November, but Congress returned it to the fourth.  People began to complain even then about the commercialisation of Christmas, but the secular aspects of the season continued to grow, almost imperceptibly.  Santa Claus became firmly established as the giver of gifts, symbolising the last attempt of businesses to be financially sound at the end of the year, before the stock on hand could be taxed.  Even our national perception of Santa being robed in red and white is based entirely on a very successful advertising campaign by Coca-Cola.

Now, I am not a naysayer about the Spirit of Christmas.  Quite the contrary, I thoroughly enjoy the season, with the fresh pine aroma of the trees, the wreaths, the swags; hearing the old carols which speak of the birth of the Saviour or even the ‘classic’ tunes of recent times like White Christmas, The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .”), or even Baby It’s Cold Outside (certainly not the pop Christmas drivel that we hear on store Muzak, and anyone associated with the annoying Jingle Bell Rock should be taken out and shot).  The purpose is to primarily focus on the message that Christ bought to the world, and the Season of Glad Tidings should help orient us to that purpose.  I have a proposal that works well in families with small children, as long as you exercise some fiscal discipline.

Start with the old tradition of Advent, the Sundays leading up to Christmas, lighting the four candles, one each Sunday, and marking the significance of each.  Set up the family crèche or nativity scene, but leave vacant figures so that they arrive on schedule.  Place the figurines of the Magi elsewhere in the house, and each Sunday, move them closer to signify their journey.  On Christmas, the infant Jesus appears in the manger, and Santa visits to provide the ‘big gift’, or the significant one that we have come to expect from him, as well as filling the stockings.  The decorations remain up, instead of the sudden removal on the next day, and the spirit remains.  On Epiphany, then the family exchanges gifts with each other, as the figures of the Magi arrive at the nativity scene.  This is in keeping with the original idea of the season and preserves and extends the season.  This also beats the merchants at their own game – it takes advantage of the after-Christmas sales, when they try to dump as much as possible before the end of the year, and grants a likely extra paycheck at the beginning of January.  You must keep the idea of gift-giving within reason, though, and remember the ‘reason for the season’.

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