What is Epiphany or Little Christmas or Twelfth Night?
An Undergound Christmas
On the Twelfth Day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me: 12 Drummers Drumming...
The 12 Drummers are the tenets of the Christian's Nicene Creed and this is the beloved Christmas carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. It was originally thought to be a school child's counting song, but was not. It was written specifically as a coded message for remembering the Birth of Jesus Christ and the spread of the Gospel, when celebrating these events was outlawed in the UK and the American Colonies, along with celebratory icons like mince pie.
On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, We Have At Least Three Holiday Events:
Epiphany - The day chosen to commemorate the Wise Men's visit to the infant Jesus, opening the eyes of the world to the newborn Messiah. Epiphany is that revelation.
Little Christmas - Christmas on the old calendar and as celebrated by Orthodox Churches - Greek, Serbian, Ukrainian, some Armenian, and several others. The services are lovely, full of soft candlelight and tinkling small bells. Another, overlapping, holiday to this one in Ukraine is Malanka, with celebrations lasting through January 19th or 20th -- New Year's is 20 days long!
Twelfth Night - A party night that is the beginning of the Mardi Gras season running up to Fat Tuesday, the day in which all fats are are to be removed from the house traditionally for the 40 days (giving up fats for Lent). In parts of England and the Northeastern US, Fat Tuesday is celebrated with Pancake Races, commemorating the use of all the butter and such in the house - people make pancakes and run with their skillets to place the pancakes at the race's endpoint.
The Three Wise Men saved the life of the infant Jesus in not reporting his whereabouts to King Herod. They did, however, open the eyes of the people to the Messiah-hood of Jesus. This is indeed a big event in Christian church history, this Epiphany.
January 6 is the date of the Christian Festival called Epiphany. It is the date that Christianity has selected to commemorate the manifestation of the infant Jesus as The Christ, the Messiah of the Old Testament - made clear by the visit of the Magi, or Three Wise Men. According to custom and literature, though, the number three often represented a dozen - sometimes more. This would be even better, poetically, matching the Twelve Disciples later in the life of Baby Jesus.
Epiphany is celebrated by certain Greek, Russian and Serbian Orthodox churches on January 19, by the old calendar; although it is though the festival is held most widely by most churches on January 6.
Be as that as all may be, the public did not realize that Jesus as a baby was the Messiah until the wise men came from the East with gifts for the child.
Popularly, Epiphany is also called Three King's Day and other names.
As a church season of the year, Epiphany is often observed from January 6 through Ash Wednesday, whereupon the church season becomes Lent for 40 days. However, some congregations celebrate only a single day of Epiphany.
Different colors of paraments (altar décor) are placed on and around the altar of the church during each church season, and they are changed for Lent. Many churches use gold and white throughout Advent (Christmas, the arrival of the Lord) and Epiphany, changing to green for Lent, though some congregations use other colors for their church seasons.
The New Testament Scripture of the Epiphany visit fo the Wise Men to the infant Jesus is recorded below in Young's Literal Translation, which is in the public domain.
1And Jesus having been born in Beth-Lehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, lo, mages from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, `Where is he who was born king of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and we came to bow to him.'
3And Herod the king having heard, was stirred, and all Jerusalem with him, 4and having gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he was inquiring from them where the Christ is born.
5And they said to him, `In Beth-Lehem of Judea, for thus it hath been written through the prophet, 6And thou, Beth-Lehem, the land of Judah, thou art by no means the least among the leaders of Judah, for out of thee shall come one leading, who shall feed My people Israel.'
7Then Herod, privately having called the mages, did inquire exactly from them the time of the appearing star, 8and having sent them to Beth-Lehem, he said, `Having gone -- inquire ye exactly for the child, and whenever ye may have found, bring me back word, that I also having come may bow to him.'
9And they, having heard the king, departed, and lo, the star, that they did see in the east, did go before them, till, having come, it stood over where the child was.
10And having seen the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy, 11and having come to the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and having fallen down they bowed to him, and having opened their treasures, they presented to him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, 12and having been divinely warned in a dream not to turn back unto Herod, through another way they withdrew to their own region.
Holy Icons in OrthodoxyClick thumbnail to view full-size
To the churches that celebrate Christmas by an older calendar than those of us that commemorate December 25th, January 6 is Christmas.
Some people call the holiday on January 6 Little Christmas. Others call it Old Christmas, referencing the old calendar.
In fact, some families celebrate both Christmas dates, having a full Twelve Days of Christmas between them. In many places these 12 days lead up to the beginning of Mardi Gras preparation with wekly parties after the 12th Night is celebrated.
A Shakespearean play is titled Twelfth Night and is one of my favorites.
My first Russian teacher celebrated both Christmases, one at school with students and the second at home with her mother and family, along with other Russians and Ukrainians in my city. This is where I first heard of the Orthodox Church Calendar and Little Christmas.
Even Jewish Ukrainians I knew kept a Christmas tree on the second floor of their homes until the January date, the menorrah being downstairs, although this was not the usual custom among the Jewish community at large. This particular congregation honored both Hanukkah and the Christ Child in their own way.
Holy Icons of the Nativity in Orthodox churches are beautifully done and often many centuries old - museum pieces, really.
Holy icons at art pieces gather additional attention from visitors during Advent.
All of the Holy Icons are called "Windows of Heaven.".
Orthodox and Messianic Jewish Congregations
Twelfth Night is the twelfth night of Christmas in the Christmas carol and twelve days after December 25. Traditionally, it may be either January 5 or 6, depending on whether the community counts days or nights of Christmas. Looking at the night of festivities, we can see a blending of church and secular activities and attitudes.
12th Night Mystery
Martha Grimes's English mystery novel staged on Twelfth Night, where Harlequin costumes confuse the community and Detective Inspector Richard Jury.
Masquerade parties can be fun all year round and Twelfth Night is a grand time of parties and parades in New Orleans. This night marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras season with weekly masqued balls, while the Krewes build their floats for the Mardi Gras Parade on Fat Tuesday Night. The week before Fat Tuesday, parties and even parades are held every evening. Ash Wednesday follows the big Tuesday parade, with church services and the sacrifice of luxuries for 40 days in many congregations in the Catholic Church, and within some other denominations.
Some non-denominational churches have given up a variety of luxuries for Lent, although in the Catholic Church, meat became one usual item given up annually for a period of years (along with Friday abstinence from meat all year), and the original sacrifice was all the fats in the house.
For 40 days, some non-denominational congregations have given up any of the following: the Internet, magazine subscriptions, extra phone lines, the more-expensive daily coffee drinks at coffee shops, weekly hair and nail appointments, ice cream, candy, movies, and dozens of others on a long list for 40 days. Some give up television and never turn it on again. However, some of these churches have a party on what the world calls Fat Tuesday, too. Food, treats, music, and all kinds of activities are offered before the period of 40-days sacrifice. This is a bit similar to Twelfth Night festivities, although costumes are not usually worn.
The banishment of fats from the family home must have made cooking more difficult in the days of wood stoves and cooking fires. What was bread like without shortening? -- Much like the unleavened bread of the Passover very likely; not that it was flat like matzo, but less tasty - bland.
Fatty beef was likely not used at all, but pork provides its own fats/grease and perhaps this is how families were able to cook. A chicken or pheasant might be roasted over a fire, though, and the duck and goose offered additional fat (well known to our First Peoples friends). I suspect boiled vegetables, some sort of bread or cracker, occasional fowl or meat, and perhaps some preserved fruit took people through the remains of winter up to Easter or Resurrection Sunday.These 40 days of sacrifice were seen as a duty long ago.
All in all, Lent was a difficult time in which the people of the church contemplated the Advent of Jesus specifically to die at the end of Lent to be Resurrected. It was and is mind-boggling to many people not of this specific Faith.
12th Night Celebrations
Central Ohio celebrates First Night on December 31 each year for New Year's Eve, but has not offered any Twelfth Night celebrations.
If your community holds Twelfth Night Festivities and related Mardi Gras action, please list them in Comments below!
12 Days of Christmas in All 50 States
Related Traditions and Customs
- The 12 Days of Christmas In Ireland - Chart of Meanings
The Irish and the 12 Days of Christmas to Twelfth Night, plus the closest Monday - Handsels Day, upon which children receive small presents again...
- Favorite Holiday Recipes - Mincemeat
Banned in Boston and the rest of New England for a time, mincemeat was banned also in England as too frivolous for Christmas.
More by this Author
Two deities and dozens of well known mortals have been born on December 25th and we celebrate them all. Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas!
Christmas can be a time of wonder, but some individuals further wonder whether America's Amish communities celebrate Christmas at all, and in what ways. Witnessing a traditional, old fashioned Amish Christmas can be a...
After writing resumes, cover letters, and job applications, candidates hope to interview well, impress the hiring officer, and secure the job. Here's what to avoid saying during the interview.