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!

 

 

Merry Christmas from Bethlehem!

Bethlehem

Bethlehem

Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities, now about 40% of the population, but once around 85%. It’s a small city of about 25,000, with tourism as the main industry.

Besides being the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the site of the tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s tomb, on the edge of town, attracts Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, but Bethlehem’s star attraction, by far, is the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, in the center of town.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The original church was built upon orders from the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena around the year 327. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church a couple hundred years later, and that church still stands, the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Beneath the church is a cave believed to be the actual spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The earliest written accounts of Jesus being born in a cave date from the 2nd century, but the oral tradition is likely much older. Many houses in the area are built up against caves, which were used for storage and animal shelter.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Most scholars think not. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, place the nativity in Bethlehem, although the details differ. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, don’t address Jesus’ birth at all. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would be descended from King David, and David was born and raised in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It could be that the writers of Matthew and Luke symbolically placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in reference to that prophecy. Journalistic accuracy was not intended or expected.

Personally, I don’t think it matters where exactly Jesus was born, but I do find it interesting to think about the context in which the Gospels were written and their intended audiences. Although they carry an eternal message, the form that message takes tells us a lot about the world of the first Christians. Matthew cites the genealogy of Jesus back through David and ultimately to Abraham. That would have been meaningful to a Jewish audience. Luke’s genealogy goes right back to Adam to encompass all of humanity and he exults the newborn Jesus as savior of the whole world, not only of the Jews. Luke was writing for a Greek, gentile audience.

Getting to Bethlehem is easy, just a short drive from Jerusalem. Tourists pass through an Israeli check-point from Israel to the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Israelis are not allowed to enter, so if you’re on a guided tour, a Palestinian guide will meet you on the other side.

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is held on December 24-25 at the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s, next door to the Church of Nativity. Tickets (no charge) are required to attend the service. Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6-7 for the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Othodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Foto Friday – Holy Fire

In Orthodox Christian tradition, on the day before Easter, a flame emanates from the tomb of Jesus in the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. Crowds of worshippers gather to partake of the miraculous fire.

photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

photo by Noam Chen, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

photo by Noam Chen, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Poetry Corner: the Song of Moses & Miriam

The Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicolas Poussin, 1634

The Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicolas Poussin, 1634

In honor of Passover, a song of praise from Exodus 15:1-19 ~

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:

“I will sing to the Lord,
    for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea.

“The Lord is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
    my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior;
    the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
    he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
    are drowned in the Red Sea.
The deep waters have covered them;
    they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, Lord,
    was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord,
    shattered the enemy.

“In the greatness of your majesty
    you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
    it consumed them like stubble.
By the blast of your nostrils
    the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood up like a wall;
    the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.
The enemy boasted,
    ‘I will pursue, I will overtake them.
I will divide the spoils;
    I will gorge myself on them.
I will draw my sword
    and my hand will destroy them.’
10 But you blew with your breath,
    and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead
    in the mighty waters.
11 Who among the gods
    is like you, Lord?
Who is like you—
    majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
    working wonders?

12 “You stretch out your right hand,
    and the earth swallows your enemies.
13 In your unfailing love you will lead
    the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
    to your holy dwelling.
14 The nations will hear and tremble;
    anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
    the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
16  terror and dread will fall on them.
By the power of your arm
    they will be as still as a stone —
until your people pass by, Lord,
    until the people you bought pass by.
17 You will bring them in and plant them
    on the mountain of your inheritance —
the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling,
    the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.

18 “The Lord reigns
    for ever and ever.”

19 When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.

Exodus 15:1-19
New International Version

Redemption & Resurrection

Redemption, resurrection, renewal, promise and freedom are themes of our current season. Over the ages, countless traditions have marked the springtime miracle of life bursting forth from seemingly cold, dead earth.

I’m thinking of three traditions in particular, two of which are probably obvious to those of us in the West, Passover and Easter. This year, the week of Passover overlaps Christian Holy Week, the period between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. To add a hint of scandal, I’m also thinking of the ecstatic Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece. All three involve breaking free of physical and spiritual bondage of some sort and emerging as a more complete, connected and authentic individual, community member and earthling.

Passover celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led by the divinely chosen but less-than-willing Moses. They are reborn as a nation and set on a path by the Lord to the Promised Land. The physical redemption of the Israelites is honored during the 7-day holiday and it is also a time of spiritual redemption. Along with house cleaning of the soul there is house cleaning of the house. The Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and, unable to wait for bread to rise, they took unleavened bread to sustain them on their journey. A big part of Passover tradition is to rid the home of all traces of leavened stuff and anything that might consider leavening if given the opportunity. Cupboards and pantries are cleansed of breads and pastries, pastas and most grains and, for good measure, the whole house is usually given a major spring cleaning.

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo Jordan, as seen by the Israelites after wandering in the desert for 40 years

the view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo Jordan, as seen by the Israelites after wandering in the desert for 40 years

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, a sign of redemption and liberation from death. Through Jesus we are shown that death is not an end but a new beginning, a passage to another life. Easter symbols are all about fertility and new life – eggs, chicks, bunnies, Easter Lilies…

the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples before being arrested

the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples before being arrested

the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested

the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

Dionysian rites were held in the spring across the Greek and Roman world. Dionysus was associated with the season of rebirth because he was a twice-born god. His mortal mother Semele died while pregnant with Dionysus when she insisted that Zeus, the father of her baby, appear before her in his full godliness. Semele was not equipped for such a sight and perished instantly. Zeus provided the fetal Dionysus a substitute womb inside his thigh, from which Dionysus was born again some time later.

There were also strong liberation themes in Dionysian rites, which were characterized by wild abandon. Dionysus was god of the vine and wine was used to break down restrictive social barriers and inhibitions. Celebrants drank and danced into tranced-out frenzy, transcending the mundane world to be spiritually unified with the god. Woohoo!

La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William Bouquereau, 1884

La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William Bouquereau, 1884