Epiphany and the 12 Days of Christmas

In the Christian calendar January 6 is Epiphany or Theophany, which means the manifestation of God. The day celebrates the revelation of Jesus as the son of God when he was baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptist and/or when he was visited by the three wise men, at which time he was revealed to the gentile world.

A few Orthodox churches adhere to the ancient Julian Calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar, making Julian January 6 = Gregorian January 19. Likewise, Julian December 25 is Gregorian January 7, and that is why some Christians seem to be celebrating Christmas on January 7; really, they are celebrating on December 25 but in a different calendar.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Bethany Beyond the Jordan, widely believed to be the site of Jesus’ baptism, celebrated on the feast of Epiphany, January 6

frankincense - one of the gifts brought by the wise men from the east, an event celebrated on the feast day of Epiphany, January 6

frankincense – one of the gifts brought by the wise men from the east, an event celebrated on the feast day of Epiphany, January 6

This brings me to the 12 days of Christmas. As a secular American, mostly familiar with 2 days of Christmas, if you count Christmas Eve (not to mention the 50+ days of commercial-Christmas inundation), I was always vaguely baffled by the 12 Days of Christmas song. I guess I half-consciously assumed it was an old and/or foreign custom and left it at that. Maybe some of you can relate and will appreciate a bit of clarification on the subject; maybe this is all common knowledge that was passed out while I was daydreaming about the piles of loot Santa was going to leave under our tree.

It turns out my dismissal of the 12 days as old or foreign is pretty much correct. For the record, I find old and foreign customs very interesting, unless associated with an annoying and endless song. To this day, the 12 days of Christmas are acknowledged by Christians around the world, outside the United States of America. Generations ago, in the U.S., the rhythms of commercial Christmas swallowed those of liturgical Christmas and now we count the shopping days before Christmas Day rather than the holy days after.

The 12 days of Christmas, also known as Christmastide = December 25-January 5. January 5 is 12th Night, the bridge from Christmastide to Epiphany and the festival season, which lasts through Mardi Gras. As far as I can tell, there’s no particular significance to each of the 12 days, rather it’s a prolonged celebration of the birth of Jesus. In some traditions, gifts are exchanged on each of the 12 days.

In Greece, gifts are typically exchanged on January 1st, St. Basil’s Day, rather than on December 25th. There’s not much of a tradition of Christmas trees in Greece but it’s common to keep a sprig of basil wrapped around a small cross hanging over a bowl of water. During the 12 days, the basil-cross is dunked and water is sprinkled throughout the house to ward off the dark elements of the season.

In Greece, during the 12 days of Christmas, the country is plagued with little demons called kallikatzaroi. They hide in dark crevices during the day but come out at night and subject the land to rampant mischief. Yule logs are kept burning day and night to prevent them from coming down the chimney or old shoes are burned as a smelly repellant.

With the traditional blessing of the waters on Epiphany, the kallikatzaroi are sent back underground, where they spend their time sawing at the world tree in order to topple the earth. While they are wreaking havoc for 12 days on the surface, the world tree heals and they must start sawing anew on January 6th. Essentially, the Greeks endure chaos for 12 days in order to save the world. (Thanks, most grateful!) Conversely, the kallikatzaroi sacrifice the fruits of 353 days of hard labor for 12 days of utter abandon, the mother of all frat parties.

The kallikatzaroi may be cultural remnants of the Dionysian rites of antiquity, when possessed and intoxicated devotees of the god of the vine ran around behaving in extremely uncivilized ways.

Happy Epiphany to all who celebrate and congratulations to Greece (and the world!) for surviving another year despite the best efforts of the kallikatzaroi.

What Are The Greeks Up To For New Year’s?

Vassilopita, photo from Greek Reporter

On New Year’s, Greeks will be partying and enjoying fireworks, along with the rest of the world. But, also like the rest of the world, they will partake in some local, age-old traditions as well.

In some Christian denominations, including the Greek Orthodox, January 1st is the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. According to Jewish tradition, male babies are circumcised 8 days after birth. The day is honored as Jesus’ first sacrifice for human kind.

January 1st is also celebrated as the anniversary of the death of St. Vasilios (Basil), an early church father remembered for his generosity, especially to the poor. Holiday gifts are traditionally exchanged on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, rather than the 24th or 25th of December and it’s St. Vasilios who brings gifts for children instead of St. Nicolas.

St. Nick does get a nod though. His feast day on December 6 opens the Christmas season, which ends with the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. The 12 days of Christmas begin with the birth of Jesus on December 25 and end with the visit of the Magi on January 6th. So, while many Americans close the holiday season on January 2nd, Greece remains in the thick of it for a few more days.

On New Year’s Eve, it’s traditional for family and friends to gather for a big meal and stay up waiting for the New Year and St. Vasilios to arrive. They might pass the time playing games of chance, this being a particularly lucky day.

An onion is hung on the door overnight as a symbol of renewal. Once the New Year rings in, a pomegranate, symbol of prosperity, is smashed on the doorstep before entering the house the 1st time.

The Vasilopita is a traditional cake baked with a coin inside. On New Year’s Day, the cake is served and whoever finds the coin in their cake can look forward to a lucky year.

Cheers to all and best wishes for a healthy, prosperous and peaceful 2019!

 

 

NAME THAT COUNTRY

 

This is Phaistos, remains of a Minoan city on the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Phaistos is one of five Minoan palatial centers on the island, the best-known of which is the flashy Knossos. The Minoan civilization dominated the eastern Mediterranean for several hundred years in the 2nd millennium BCE and their sophisticated culture significantly influenced Western Civilization.

Can you name that country? 
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From Mycenae to Troy

I want to tell the story of Troy, the legendary Troy of Helen and the Trojan War, but first I’ll tell about Mycenae, because it’s important to the back story.

the so-called Mask of Agamemnon funeral mask, found at Mycenae and now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens

the so-called Mask of Agamemnon funeral mask, found at Mycenae and now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens

Mycenae is located in the eastern Peloponnese, about 80 miles from Athens. Some 3500 years ago, it was a powerful presence in the eastern Mediterranean. According to legend, Mycenae was ruled at its peak by Agamemnon, a son of the cursed Atreidae dynasty. He was a deeply flawed character, whose bad decisions perpetuated the kind of bloody family saga the ancient Greeks did so well.

Agamemnon’s ancestor, Tantalus, offended the gods by serving them his own children for dinner and by stealing their famous nectar, ambrosia. Eternal torture for Tantalus was not sufficient punishment for his crimes; his descendants were doomed to lives of violence, betrayal and crushing tragedy.

Agamemnon’s brother was Menelaus. The brothers were married to two sisters, Agamemnon to Clytemnestra and Menelaus to Helen. Yes, that Helen. Before she was Helen of Troy, she was Helen of Sparta, widely considered the world’s most beautiful woman. Helen’s father was the king of Sparta, and when the time came to find her a husband, the royal halls were jammed with suitors. After considering his options, the king decided the least messy way to settle the matter was to draw straws. However, knowing that a few sore losers were inevitable, he first had all suitors vow to support the winner of Helen’s hand if her honor were ever challenged. With that out of the way, straws were drawn. Menelaus won the hand of Helen in marriage and also succeeded his father-in-law as the king of Sparta.

Sometime later, Paris, prince of Troy, visited Sparta, accepted the hospitality of Menelaus, and then ran off with his wife. The real beginning of this story, involving the revenge of a spurned goddess, explains Paris’ audacity, but more about that in my next post. For now, it’s enough to know that Paris either abducted or seduced Helen away to Troy.

ancient pot dipicting the abduction of Helen

ancient pot depicting the abduction of Helen

Agamemnon, the more powerful and aggressive of the Atreus brothers, invoked the oath made by Helen’s suitors, the warrior kings and princes of Greek states, to stand with Menelaus to defend Helen’s honor, and his own. A great war fleet was assembled and set sail, only to get lost and scattered on the way to Troy. Eight years later they reconvened off the coast of Greece and tried to set out again, but the goddess Artemis, who had been offended by Agamemnon, had the ships trapped in the harbor by the wind. With more than 1,000 ships sitting idle, Agamemnon consulted a prophet, who advised him to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, and so he did. Remember I mentioned Agamemnon’s bad decision-making? Well, in the short run, he got what he was after, sailing conditions favorable to advance his war. In the long run, many chapters and more than a decade down the line, he will pay.

Check back next time for the exciting conclusion!

Today at Mycenae, you can see some impressive royal tombs, cyclopean walls (so called because the stones are so large they must have been placed by the one-eyed giant Cyclopes), the grand Lion Gate, and footprints of a palace and associated buildings. Some of the tombs yielded a trove of golden treasure, including the famous and misnamed Mask of Agamemnon, which dates to an earlier period than the Agamemnon we have come to know. The artifacts are not at Mycenae but at the Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Lion's Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Lion’s Gate, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb interior, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb interior, Mycenae, Greece

fresco in the archaeological museum at Mycenae, Greece

fresco in the archaeological museum at Mycenae, Greece

Mycenae makes an easy day trip from Athens or an essential stop on a longer exploration of the Peloponnese.

Click to see our Greece tours that include Mycenae.

You Can’t Trick Fate or Cronus’ Come-Uppance

Two reputed shelters of the infant Zeus - Zas Cave on Mount Zas on the island of Naxos and Ideon Cave on Mount Ida on the island of Crete.

Two reputed shelters of the infant Zeus – Zas Cave on Mount Zas on the island of Naxos and Ideon Cave on Mount Ida on the island of Crete.

Most stories about Zeus have him spending his youth in hiding on the island of Crete, while some place his refuge on Naxos. As the mighty, thunderbolt wielding father of the Olympians, I suppose there’s enough of Zeus to go around and will not question the claims of either island. I will instead tell you why he was hiding; on that, there is wide consensus.

Zeus was the youngest child of the Titans, Cronus and Rhea. The Titans were a race of giant gods that preceded the Olympian gods in ancient Greek religion. They were conceived by mother earth Gaia and father sky Uranus. Cronus grew up to overthrow his father and assume the role of sky god. Thereafter riddled with guilt and paranoia, and haunted by a prophecy that he would in turn be toppled by one of his sons, Cronus swallowed all of his children as soon as they were born.

After watching her husband gobble her first five babies – Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon – Rhea hatched a plan to save her next chick child. After delivering Zeus, she hid him away. When Cronus came to swallow the newborn, Rhea gave him a stone wrapped in blankets instead, which he promptly washed down with some ambrosia, none the wiser.

Zeus grew up somewhere safe, maybe Crete, maybe Naxos. He was raised by his grandmother Gaia or by a goat or by a nymph or… In any case, he was protected and nurtured and grew into a mighty young god. When he reached the age of majority, first on his agenda was to rescue his siblings from the gut of his father. The last in was the first out – the stone, which had taken Zeus’ place. That became the Omphalos, the stone marking the center of the world at Delphi. Next, one by one, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter and Hestia were coughed up. Then the children of Cronus, with sweet, fresh air in their lungs and vengeance in their hearts, pulled the throne out from under their monster of a father, and took all the other Titans down with him for good measure.

Zeus went on to lead the dysfunctional family of Olympian gods and preside over the weather and affairs of state among mortals. He was quite a decent ruler, by all accounts wise and just. He was, however, a shameful philanderer, much to the dismay of his wife Hera. He fathered children all over the place, but, unlike his own father Cronus, he never devoured any of them.

NAME THAT COUNTRY

 

In the south west of the Peloponnese peninsula, Gialova lagoon is one of the most important wetlands in Europe. It’s a nationally protected area and a wildlife refuge. Over 250 species of birds have been documented in the lagoon, including herons, osprey, terns, flamingos and sandpipers. Many thousands of migrating birds stop in the lagoon each year as they travel between Africa and Europe in spring and fall and some 20,000 hang around all year long.

Can you name that country? 
See below for answers.

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