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.

Merry Christmas from 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 Orthodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Joyous Interlude

Mystical Nativity

Mystical Nativity
Sandro Botticelli, c.1500

Last night, as I was preparing a post about travel related stocking-stuffers, I experienced what can only be described as spiritual ecstasy while listening to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I was moved near to tears by the joy and beauty of it.

I’m sorry to say that I can be a bit of a humbug at Christmas and rarely get in the spirit this early. Usually, sometime after the middle of the month, my Grinchy heart bursts its chains and swells all out of proportion. Obsessive baking, shopping and decorating ensues. It’s the lights and music that get me and especially the 3-hour Christmas Oratorio by JS Bach. I’m sure the opening chorus of the 1st cantata is the most joyful thing I have ever heard. Please listen and celebrate, whatever your tradition, use headphones for the best effect. For me, it’s about life’s hope and promise.

This is the text of the opening chorus, written to be performed on Christmas day, 1734.

Exult, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
 Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

The stocking-stuffers post can wait until next week.