Epiphany, Day of the Kings

January 6

Every child knows that at one point Christmas had twelve days. The song says so. “On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

But this begs two questions:

First, what kind of sicko sends their true love sends 23 birds, 50 assorted pipers, drummers, milk maids, ladies and leapin’ lords, five rings and a pear tree, and doesn’t include one vacuum?

And second, what happened to the other eleven days? What kind of cruel world advertises the twelve days of Christmas to its children and gives them only one? “Sorry kids, we just couldn’t afford the first 11 days this year. If only you’d been born last century.”

The truth is…

The Truth

Actually December 25th is the first day of Christmas, not the last.

In the modern world of Christmas so much energy is focused on preparing exclusively for the first day that by the time the 26th rolls around many people are simply Christmas’d out.

But for much of Christian history, the twelve days began on the night of December 25th and ended the day of January 6th. (…though the calendar varies for different Churches. Christmas in the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, doesn’t fall until January 7th.)

Today we tend to mark our holidays by calendar day–midnight to midnight–but these holidays were traditionally celebrated sunset to sunset. The famed “Twelfth Night” actually falls on the evening of January 5th, though calendars mark the Epiphany as January 6th.

The Epiphany

The Epiphany literally means ‘manifestation’ and marks the day the Three Wise Men, or Magi, encountered the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus.

There are different theories as to the details surrounding the Magi mentioned in the Gospels. In fact no number is specified in the Bible, but the number three may have originated due to the three gifts bestowed upon Christ: gold, myrrh and frankincense. Matthew does not give clues to their origin, nationality, religion, or ethnicity either except to say they came “from the East” to Jerusalem. Hence they are referred to as the Three Kings of the Orient, although their rank is also supposition

The three differing places of origin may have developed as a way of demonstrating the diversity of Christ’s influence.

The names attributed to the Magi vary from place to place. We can trace the names Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar to a 6th century Greek text]

One theory for their origin is that they were Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism was one of the most common religions of Persia at the time, and its priests were astrologers, who were revered for their knowledge of the night sky.

The Magi bestowed three gifts that represent:

  • Gold – royalty, for kings
  • Frankincense – piety, for priests
  • Myrrh – suffering, or painful death

which led to the Virgin Mary’s famous quip: “So which one of you Wise Guys brought the Myrrh?”

Over the next two millennia many European traditions associated with the winter solstice merged with the twelve days of Christmas. For example, on Twelfth Night roles were often reversed, such as master and servant, a tradition stemming from the Roman Saturnalia.
So enjoy this the twelfth and last day of Christmas. And whatever you do, don’t give a baby myrrh. That’s just rude.










Boxing Day

December 26

St. Stephen

“In London and other places, St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected…

The Book of Days

As a child I thought it odd that the British, so seemingly refined (compared to us their American cousins), would dedicate the day after Christmas to such a brutal and pugilistic sport. Yet there it was on the calendar: “Boxing Day – UK”.

Apparently the holiday has very little to do with the sport, but everything to do with gift-giving. And no, it’s not about boxing up all the gifts you don’t want so you can return them to the store either.

According to The Book of Days (1882)…

“The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year’s gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practised universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year’s gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes…

“…Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefor from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employes, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

“St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day.”

Boxing-night was a night of much joy and revelry. The Book of Days goes on to tell us that “the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night” as the pockets of the working class are stuffed with recently received year-end bonuses.

You can also find some packed pubs and bars on Boxing Day, as celebrants, having spent 24-48 hours with family, join their friends to bid a fond farewell to the Christmas season, if not the Christmas spirit.

[Of course , Boxing Day is actually only the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, so the season doesn’t technically end until Epiphany on January 6.]

Jesus: Happy 2011th–2015th?–2019th?…

December 25

Behold! the angels said, ‘Oh Mary! God gives you glad tidings of a Word from Him. His name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter, and in (the company of) those nearest to God.

— Qur’an 3:45

Nativity, Gerard von Honthorst (1590-1656)

Today we celebrate Jesus Christ’s 2011th birthday.

Actually, no.

We don’t know the year Jesus was born. But it’s believed he was born at least four years prior to the year we count as 1 A.D. because King Herod the Great, whom Matthew cites as king when Jesus was born, died in 3 or 4 BC.

One theory for this discrepancy is that Dionysius Exiguus–the sixth century monk who created the A.D. dating system (short for Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi or “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ”)–forgot to calculate the four-year reign of Emperor Octavian when adding up the years since the birth of Christ. Thus, the year he deduced to be 525 AD should have been 529.

Another theory states that Jesus was born even earlier, since the census that Luke mentions as the time of Jesus’s birth [This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria – Luke 2:2] occurred every fourteen years. Working backward, historians figured the first census would have been conducted in 8 BC.

So you see, we’re already in the future: 2019 AD.

But whether we’re wishing Jesus a happy 2011th, 2015th or 2019th birthday, we’re almost certainly celebrating the wrong day.

There’s no hint in the Gospels as to the day or even the season of Christ’s birth. A fact which has led some Christian denominations to exclaim that, had God wanted us to celebrate the birthday of the Lord, He would have given us some indication of the date.

In 4000 Years of Christmas, Episcopalian minister and scholar Earl Count recounts that the Romans celebrated December 25 as the birthday of the Sun God Mithra, a tradition inherited from Persian Mithraism. Similarly, the Annunciation of Christ, observed 9 months earlier on March 25, coincided with the Spring Equinox, which was celebrated as the New Year in the Near East.

In fact, Dionysius himself never considered the first day of the Christian era to be Christ’s birth—theoretically December 25, 1 AD—but Christ’s conception—aka, the Annunciation—on March 25.

That led to some confusion. As late as 18th century the English still marked March 25 as the start of the calendar year. (i.e., March 24, 1699 was followed by March 25, 1700. Yes, these are the people that cursed us with the Imperial measurement system of feet and pounds.)

In the United States, Christmas–a holiday once banned by the Puritans–has far outstripped the popularity of the Annunciation, or any holiday for that matter, partially due to its potential for consumerism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Which has led the folks at The Good News to ask, not how can we put the Christ back into Christmas, but “How can we put Jesus back into the season when He was never part of it to begin with?

Well, regardless of how Christmas was created, it has become the de facto time to observe the principles taught by Jesus nearly 2000 years ago in a troublesome Roman backwater. Christmastime is the season of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Some Christians say they wish Christmas could last all year. Others say that Christmas’s pagan roots mean we shouldn’t celebrate it at all. I’m inclined to agree with the former. If we don’t know which day of the 365 is the real Christmas, best to hedge our bets, and make every day a holy day.


‘Twas the Night Before Christmas…

December 24

‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the store
Not a register was empty
Nor an inch of the floor

For the men of the nation
Had converged on this spot
To buy all the presents
They should’ve already bought.

Today my co-workers complimented me on my resistance to all the goodies lying around the office. It wasn’t resistance; it’s just that at this point my body weight is 90% chocolate, and the remaining ten is sugar.

My boss let us out early today (4:30) which gave me an hour and a half to do all my Christmas shopping.

Single women, if you want to find a man, go to any mall in America after 5pm on Christmas Eve. The stores are chock full of them. Take your pick. You will know one of these shoppers is a male because he has the same expression as a parachuter who has just been dropped in Uzbekistan with a map of Disneyland and a purse.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Christmas Eve was not associated with frantic mobs scavenging through Toys R Us for the last Diaper-Me Elmo, or whatever the current craze is.

That time was 1866. The following year, Macy’s department store remained open Christmas Eve until midnight for last minute shoppers, thus setting in motion the downward spiral that has consumed our society.

You’ll notice with a lot of Saints’ Days, that the “Eves” before are still more important than the Days themselves. The same goes for many Jewish, Muslim and Hindu holidays. In many calendars, the day once began at sunset, a time much easier for farmers to deduce than 11:59 pm.

Some “Eves” were celebrated reverently with a mass at church. But many an Eve developed a reputation for merry-making. For example, Saint Nick’s Eve when townspeople would dress a boy up as a clergyman–a “Boy-Bishop” he was called–who would imitate a priest, much to the delight of onlookers. Sometimes mobs would sing bawdy songs while careening drunkenly through the streets in a haphazard procession, often harassing the social elite in the process.

Boy Bishop
Boy Bishop

This led to King Henry VIII’s infamous “party-pooper” decree:

Whereas heretofore divers and many superstitions and chyldysh observances have be used, and yet to this day are observed and and kept…as upon Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine, Saint Clement, the Holy Innocents, and such like, children be strangelie decked and apparayled to counterfeit priests, bishoppes, and women, as so be ledde with songes and daunces from house to house, blessing the people and gatherying of money; and boyes do singe masse and preache in the pulpitt…

The Kynges Maiestie therefore, myndinge nothinge so moche as to advance the true glory of God without vaine superstition, wylleth and commandeth that from henceforth all such superstitious observations be left and clerely extinguished throwout his realmes and dominions, for asmuch as the same doth resemble rather the unlawfull superstition of gentilitie, than the pure and sincere religion of Christe.”

Of course, the King’s piety didn’t stop him from beheading his wives (or improve his spellyng). After the King’s death, his Roman-Catholic daughter Queen Mary rescinded the ban in 1554.

During Christmastime the ancient spirit of Saturnalia came out to play under the guise of Christianity, leading one 16th century Anglican bishop to pronounce, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”

Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas altogether between 1649 and 1660. And the Puritans in Massachusetts followed suit in 1659.

Rituals like those described above evolved into what we call “wassailing”. Members of the impoverished gentry would sing outside the residences of the social elite, asking, sometimes rather persuasively, for money, or at least booze—a cross between trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling, and the forerunner of both. (It was also a time for servants to impose upon their masters for tips, much like today’s Christmas bonuses.)

But according to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, it was a group of early 19th century aristocrats–disturbed by the uncouth December rituals of the gentry–who implemented many of the family-friendly traditions now associated with Christmas in North America. Jock Elliot in Inventing Christmas calls 1823 to 1848 the “Big Bang” of Christmas traditions. Chief among these: Saint Nicholas’s annual reindeer-powered sleigh jaunt on Christmas Eve, immortalized in Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” in 1822 and in Washington Irving’s short Christmas stories.

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

Nissembaum theorizes that Santa Claus served as a “Judgment Day” primer for children. Be good and get presents. Be bad and get coal. A more tangible way for parents to introduce their kids to Christian doctrine before jumping straight into Eternal Damnation. [The unintended flipside being that children, after learning “the truth” about Santa, may grow to apply the same lesson to the Judge Himself.]

Nearly 200 years later, through the miracle of modern technology we can track Santa’s journey in real time as he darts across six continents at 100 times the speed of a bullet train, according to the North American Air Defense Command, aka NORAD.

NORAD’s been tracking Santa’s Christmas Eve trips since 1955. According to legend, that was the year…

…a Sears store, at the time known as Sears Roebuck and Company, placed Christmas advertising that included a phone number where children could reach Santa Claus. The only problem was that the phone number was printed incorrectly.

wisegeek.com Why Does NORAD track Santa

Yes, the kids reached NORAD. Bombarded with calls, Air Defense personnel checked the radar and informed the children of Santa’s whereabouts.

As for me, I’m off to the land where the sugar-plums dance. So Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Festivus: a Holiday for the Rest of Us

December 23

On December 18, 1997 Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) introduced the TV-watching world to a new holiday tradition. In the Seinfeld episode “The Strike” George’s father explains to Cosmo Kramer how years earlier, fed up with the commercialization of Christmas, he conceived of the new holiday:

“Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way.”

Frank summed up the holiday in a simple catch-phrase: “A Festivus…for the rest of us.”

Over a decade later Festivus has exploded into an international–well, okay, national–phenomenon. According to the Big Book of Girl Stuff:

“Festivus was intended to be a holiday that required no shopping. The only Festivus decoration is a bare metal pole, which can be stuck in a pot or hung from the ceiling.”

Festivus Poles

Another Festivus tradition is the “Airing of Grievances” during which family members announce how disappointed they have been in one another over the past year.

As far as cultural anthropologists have deduced, the holiday was invented by the father of Seinfeld screenwriter Dan O’Keefe in the 1960s, although the younger O’Keefe altered the holiday for the Seinfeld version. The original Festivus for example was held anytime from December to May. The modern incarnation is celebrated on December 23, halfway between Winter Solstice and Christmas.

But these days Festivus has competition for the December 23 spot. A holiday known as HumanLight is also celebrated on the 23rd. HumanLight is a non-denominational festival that makes no reference to the divine or supernatural. It was started by a Humanist organization in Verona, New Jersey in 2001. Its purpose: to provide a non-religious alternative to Christmas, Hanukkah, and other December celebrations.

It’s unlikely the December 23rd date was chosen to oust Festivus, but Festivus participants will gladly take on the challenge. You see, the final activity of Festivus is known as “Feats of Strength”: no Festivus party is declared over until someone can successfully pin the host’s head to the ground.

So have a great Festivus, and if you’re throwing a party, consider plush carpeting.

Spain’s Christmas Lottery – El Gordo

December 22

Spanish Christmas Lottery ticket

The Spanish Christmas Lottery isn’t officially a holiday, but it’s an inseparable part of the holiday season in Spain, dating back to 1812. Each December 22, the entire nation waits on the edge of their seats for the winning numbers to be announced on TV, in a program that takes several hours. It’s estimated that 98% of Spanish residents take part in this lottery. It’s the largest lottery in the world in terms of payout.

“Spain spends more per head on gambling than anywhere else in the world…not because they are habitual gamblers but simply that the christmas lottery is a tradition in which the whole nation partakes!”

El Gordo – www.madrid-guide-spain.com/el-gordo.html

The first prize, aka El Gordo (“the fat one”), is 3 million Euros. May not sound like much, but the 3 million isn’t split up. Rather, there are close to 200 winning tickets, and each winner gets 3 million Euros! When you take into account that’s just one of the 1770+ prizes, the pot is well over 2 billion Euros.

Second prize is 1 million Euros. Third prize is 500,000 Euros.

The lottery tickets are more like raffle tickets on which the numbers are already printed—ie., you don’t choose your own. This enables the government to control the maximum number of winning tickets: 195. There are 195 “series” of tickets, each containing tickets with numbers ranging from 00001 to 85000. So if the winning El Gordo number is 78,294—as it was in 2009—there are a maximum of 195 winning tickets. [OK, apparently it’s more complicated than that, as participants can choose to purchase “one-tenth” of a ticket for one-tenth the price, in which case they could claim only one-tenth of the prize should they win.]

The big winner in the Christmas lottery is the same each year: the Spanish government pockets 30% of the gross, not to mention any unclaimed prizes. Close to a billion Euros!

Anyway, the point is, Christmas is a special time. A time of giving and of gambling.

But if you get an email informing you you’ve won the Spanish Lottery, as many people do, there’s a 100% chance it’s a scam. According to the U.S. State Department:

“To enter and win “El Gordo,” you must be a resident of Spain and purchase your ticket within the country. Keep in mind YOU CANNOT WIN IF YOU DID NOT BUY A TICKET! … It is against U.S. federal law to play a foreign lottery through the mail or over the phone.”

And if you did happen to win the Spanish Christmas Lottery this year, don’t forget “Every Day’s a Holiday” on your Christmas list!

The Truth about Santa – St Nick’s Eve

December 5

About this time of year parents deliberately wait in long lines in overcrowded shopping malls so their kids can sit on the lap of a fat red stranger.

Some cultures might call this odd. We call it Christmas.

Though the Christmas season begins commercially on Black Friday, and religiously on Advent, tonight kicks off the season for children in Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Austria.

Saint Nicholas, 1838 - by Robert Weir

It’s St. Nicholas’ Eve, and though the date and the figure go by many names, the themes remain the same: kids and candy.

The jolly bearded guy known as Santa Claus in the United States is actually is an amalgamation of numerous folk figures.

The United States imported “Santa Claus” mainly from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Long before that, the Dutch learned of the saint, Saint Nicholas, from Spanish sailors, who believed Saint Nicholas had the power to save sailors by stemming storms at sea. Even today Sinterklaas arrives in Holland on or around November 17 each year, not on a sleigh from the North Pole, but on a ship from Spain.

No one would be more surprised at the role Santa plays in modern society than Saint Nicholas himself, who was actually a bishop in the ancient town of Myra, Turkey (then Asia Minor) around 300 AD.

Saint Nick, old skool

Saint Nicholas was imprisoned for 5 years for refusing to recognize the Roman Emperor Diocletian as a god. He was released after the Christian Emperor Constantine took the throne and removed Christianity from the Roman “terrorist watchlist.”

Today Saint Nicholas is remembered less for his role in destroying pagan temples than for his acts of kindness toward children. Like secretly giving poor families of young girls money for a dowry, so they could marry rather than become prostitutes.

Legends of Saint Nicholas’s devotion to the poor spread throughout the centuries. As his posthumous fame grew, children would leave their boots outside on St. Nicholas Eve in the hopes that St. Nick would fill them with goodies.

In Protestant Germany, Martin Luther replaced the Catholic gift-giving Saint Nicholas with the Christkindl, or “Christ Child.” Over time Christkindl’s name morphed to Krist Kindel. You may know him however as Kris Kringle.

In North America Santa Claus travels by reindeer-guided sleigh, while in Europe the gift-giver is accompanied by figures such as Zwarte Piet (Black Piet) or Krampus (The Claw), the latter being a goat-headed demonish entity who whips bad children with a switch. The Bad Cop to Santa’s Good Cop.

Whether you call him Santa, Kris Kindl, or Father Christmas, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Christmas is still 20 days out and believe me, you don’t want to end up on Krampus’s naughty list!


There Really is a Santa Claus – William Federer

Sankt Nikolaus und der Weihnachtsmann

Saint Nicholas Customs Around the World


St. Nicholas Day in Germany

Happy New Year! The Advent-ure Begins

St. Andrew

The fourth Sunday before Christmas marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar in much of the Western Church. Advent Sunday corresponds to the Sunday nearest Saint Andrew’s Day (November 30).

Advent comes from the Latin Adventus,meaning ‘arrival’. During Advent Christians prepare for both the anniversary the birth of Christ, as celebrated on December 25, and the anticipation of the Second Coming.

The first records of what we now call Advent date from 5th and 6th century France.

Advent originally lasted six weeks (43 days), from St. Martin’s Day (November 11) to Christmas, during which adherents would fast three times a week. For many Germans and Austrians, St. Martin’s Day still kicks off the Christmas season.

Beginning in the 9th century the length of Advent was reduced to four weeks instead of six. Over the centuries the fasting element of this “second Lent” was replaced by abstinence, which was then replaced by little calendars with chocolates in them.

Some of the most visible symbols of the holiday are the Advent wreaths and the royal purple and royal blue banners and vestments in Catholic and Protestant churches.

Advent Wreath

The circular wreath was an ancient Germanic and Celtic symbol, representing the ever-turning “wheel of the year”. Today the wreath–with no beginning and no end–symbolizes the eternity of God and the immortality of the soul, as do the evergreens from which the wreath is made. Laurel leaves represent Christ’s persecution; cedar represents the healing power of Christ; and pine and holly represent immortality. Pine cones are sometimes used to signify new life and resurrection.

During each Sunday of Advent families and churches light one of the four wreath candles. In that respect the wreath is the original Advent Calendar.

In the Catholic tradition three candles are purple. The fourth, a rose candle, is lit on Gaudete Sunday.

The History of Advent

The History of the Advent Wreath