Merry Christmas—still! In the face of a holiday spirit that’s been bubbling since Halloween and was extinguished in a moment on Boxing Day, or for some never arrived, I try to remember and persevere: the Twelve Days of Christmas count up from, not down to, Christmas Day. In more ways than I expect, 2020 will continue to bleed into our fresh starts.
What they count to is the Christian feast of the Epiphany, which marks the final “wise men” act of the Nativity story. The kings are not the first to be told about Jesus, but Epiphany—in the discovery of a navigational star—exposes the incarnation to them next as the shepherds’ foil: the rich, the well-educated, the well-connected, the ruling, the Gentiles.
The kings “of Orient are,” but as tradition settled on the nice and crisp Christian number three, each king was designated to represent a continent of the “known” world—Europe, Asia, and Africa. Though only Matthew mentions the magi, these depictions check Luke’s box that the Good News will be “to all people.”
I’m going to stop there with background before I get any more wrong. I’m living a couple millenia later on a continent unmentioned. I grew up in a household of elaborate traditions surrounding Christmas, mostly on either side—my mom threw a party for family and friends on Epiphany, after a month of daily practices throughout Advent. (She even adapted the latter into a book.) We of course won’t be doing these things the same way, so I’m telling you instead.
We do a lot of things mentioned on the “Epiphany” Wikipedia page (besides fetching a cross from an ice-cold lake). Friends of friends catch up about Christmas vacations. We sing and trade desserts. My dad hoists my mom onto his shoulders to write a blessing in chalk above the doorway, and then we flick water at each other with a sprig of the Christmas tree.
We also pass around The Fourth Wise Man and each read a page as we go. The children’s book retells the legend of Artaban, another king separated from the three on his way to visit the Christ child. As he pursues Jesus for decades, he slows himself down by serving the needy. He gives away the equivalent of his gold, frankincense, and myrrh to heal the sick, buy back the enslaved, and thwart the military state.
Spoiler: He never quite gets to Jesus. But as he dies—crushed in the earthquake following his target’s crucifixion—a voice from heaven reassures him that he saw Christ most clearly. It’s supposed to be redemptive and inspiring, but I can’t help but think, that sucks. The other wise men got to have their Epiphany moment, give their adoration gift, and leave, forever mythologized. Artaban works so hard to only see Christ in retrospect.
Epiphany always arrives on the 6th, but to squeeze our party in before other family leaves post-holiday, or friends depart for interims abroad, we’ve celebrated as early as New Years’ Day. But the week between Christmas and New Years, as I write this, is always a bit of a blank white void. This can be alternately relaxing and depressing. Usually, I’m up north with extended family, doing little besides talking, reading, and walking to the lake. The year is done, and yet somehow the new year has not started.
And now, as usual, I want to believe a switch flipped on January 1st—that really it was the personified year itself that was to blame. But a new banner is arbitrary. Though the word “Epiphany” connotes only a moment, the liturgical calendar asks us to begin finding light on December 25th, and not stop.
(This Christmas, my parents and I brainstormed feast days in February that should get the Christmas treatment, when we’ll really need it. Saint Brigid felt like a good candidate.)
Epiphany is our liturgical version of a common optimism—the first weeks of resolution before a February of Duolingo reminders and dropped gym memberships. Now we reassure ourselves that this could or will be “our” year, of getting our shit together, of realizing stuff. It can be. But I’ll have to trade most of those small-e epiphanies for the light that gets us to spring.