The first time I remember hearing the word epiphany was when Dustin Hoffman was correcting Bob Hoskins, who’d said he’d just had an “apostrophe.” Mr. Hoskins clarified his meaning by following up with, “Lightin’ has just struck my brain.”A lover of words even at a young age, I committed the word and its meaning to memory.
Some years later, I discovered American Girl. Pleasant Rowland was a pioneer, making these compelling historical fiction books that were exciting and challenging and educational. Then she threw in large dolls with accessories to act out the stories for a small fortune. She’s a genius. One of the original dolls from my youth (but not one of the original three dolls made, just in case any of you are also uber-fans of American Girl) was a Patriot girl with a Loyalist best friend in colonial Virginia, named Felicity Merriman. In her Christmas story, she attends a ball at the governor’s palace for Twelfth Night during “Christmastide.” It sounded so magical! I thought about how cool it would be to drag out Christmas celebrations for twelve days.
I’ve said before that Christmas decorations are like a dominant gene in my family. That said, my mom always leaves her Christmas tree up for nearly two weeks after Christmas. Whenever I was a child and I wondered why she kept the tree up, she’d say that she did so because her grandmother left it up until “Old Christmas.” I wondered when they’d changed the date of Jesus’ birthday and how that was even possible to do.
Sadly for my faith, these exposures were all that I was aware of about the Epiphany we celebrate on January 6 in the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until much later, into my latter twenties, that I realized what it was all about. I realized that my great-grandmother’s “Old Christmas” was the day after Felicity’s Twelfth Night and I wondered what the correlation was. Fast forward through some research and I discovered that it was a feast in the church called Epiphany and it has many traditions associated with it.
So here’s a little history lesson: Twelfth Night is literally the evening of the twelfth day of Christmas and the night before we celebrate the Epiphany. Similar to Halloween and Christmas Eve, which both hold celebrations in anticipation of the next day’s feast, Twelfth Night is an anticipatory event. It began as a festival in Medieval England, and then all of Europe, where the nobility and the peasants would come together, and for the night, assume the other’s station in life.
The specifics of Twelfth Night celebrations varied throughout Europe, but all of them included a cake, called either a Twelfth Night cake or a Three King’s Cake. It was baked with one bean inside it (or, in France, with a bean and a pea). Whoever received the piece with the bean was declared the king of the feast (until midnight); likewise with the pea, a queen was declared.
This cake was not originally the same as the Mardi Gras King Cake, but it has become associated with the celebration of Epiphany in modern America due to its popularity in celebrations of Epiphany in New Orleans. In that kind of cake, a baby symbolizing Jesus is hidden in the cake for someone to find. Wassail, a delicious alternative to hot chocolate and coffee this time of year, was the customary drink at these festivals. It’s aromatic and warm and delicious—and kid-friendly, to boot.
2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
Epiphany itself is a celebration of more than just merriment and peasants being kings. It’s a celebration within the church of the Three Kings, Three Wise Men, or the Magi. Their story can be found in Matthew 2:1-12. According to the NASB Revised Edition commentary in Matthew 2, the Magi in Matthew’s gospel were “astrologers.” It also says that the word magi originally referred to a “Persian priestly caste” but was later used to describe “those who were regarded as having more than human knowledge.”
Their story, summarized, is that a star appeared to them in their native land in the east. There was a belief among them and foretold in the Old Testament (see Numbers 24:17) that a star announced the birth of a new king. They traveled to King Herod in Jerusalem searching for the newborn king of the Jews. This freaked Herod out due him already being king and all. Herod asked his scribes about the child and was told he was born in Bethlehem. Herod then sent them to Bethlehem and asked them to send back word when they found the child. The Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but found Jesus and paid him homage, bringing him gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense.
It’s a really quick read and I love that respected, powerful, grown men sought out the baby Jesus to honor him. A baby. That’s rather humble, and I think that their humility is a great example for us all.
This year, I wanted to do more than celebrate Christmas in Advent and the first and second days of Christmas. That’s new for me. I love that the Catholic Church celebrates Christmas as a full season and not as a day. So I looked through catechist prep guides and different blogs, trying to figure out how to make this year’s celebration of Christmas—real Christmas, from Christmas Eve to Epiphany—something in my own house.
We decided to celebrate Epiphany on its vigil feast, Twelfth Night. Since it’s a new thing for all of us to celebrate, we considered making this a small, intimate, family celebration. But the more we thought about the traditional celebration, we decided to open our home to our friends and family as well. I’m pretty excited about it. I am going to prepare some homemade wassail and bake an allergy-friendly Twelfth Night cake with only a pea baked into it. Since it’s a feast I’m also serving a salad and making grilled chicken provencal alongside green beans, mashed sweet potatoes, and squash and onions.
After eating, we will read the story of the Magi from our family Bible to all who have come to celebrate. We’ve kept out one nativity scene that the kids can play with in the living room that doesn’t have our kings in it yet. On Twelfth Night, they’ll finally make their way to the manger (even though it’s a little early—our Jesus is always in the manger by Christmas Eve, too).
I have a friend who moves the three kings closer to the manger each of the twelve days of Christmas, and we started this on Christmas Day. It’s similar to Elf on the Shelf where I move them in unexpected places as they make their way to the manger…and they sometimes get lost.
They’ve hidden in the m&ms and with our Mickey’s Christmas Carol figurine set, too. They’ve also gotten into Christmas cookies. It’s been fun watching Little Miss find them each morning and seeing her face, and I love that it serves a liturgical purpose. I’m always looking for more liturgical tie-ins in our domestic church.
We will have a crown craft for the children to decorate and wear throughout the night. We’re also thinking of small gift bags with golden chocolate coins, meant to remind them of the gifts the Wise Men brought. Based on RSVPs, we’re expecting only girl children and I’m thinking of having them play Pretty, Pretty Princess, too, as a nod to the treasure brought by the Magi.
How do you celebrate Christmas for the entire season when the secular world tells you not to? Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter today if you haven’t already! We’ll be posting live pictures and more from our Twelfth Night celebration on Thursday, January 5. Join us!