Today is January 6. Which means that it has been twelve days since Christmas. Simple math, really. Why does that matter. Well, today is the “Twelfth Day of Christmas” (you know the song – partridge in a pear tree and all). But beyond an 18th century Christmas carol, there are important historical links between today (January 6) and Christmas.
Epiphany and Christmas – what’s the connection?
Let’s go back to square one. First of all, nobody (that we know of) thought to write down Jesus’ birthday. Believe it or not, things like exact birthdays just weren’t that important in the first century and weren’t written down. In the third and fourth centuries, however, there was a clamoring to add a celebration of Christ’s birth to the Church calendar. At that point, the main feasts of the Church were Easter, followed by (in order of solemnity) Pentecost and the Ascension. There was also already a long-standing tradition of saints’ days (marking the “heavenly birthdays” of martyred believers).
Birthday of the sun or birthday of the Son?
Sometime during the late third century, local churches began to add a commemoration of Christ’s birth to their local calendars. In the West, December 25 was added to the calendar as the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. Some have speculated that this date was chosen to coincide with the Winter Solstice which was, at that time, celebrated on December 25 and which pagan Romans viewed as the “birthday of the sun” (– get it? Christians one-upped them by setting the same day as the birthday of the true Sun of Righteousness, cf. Malachi 4:2), but this notion is a somewhat recent one.
A more interesting (and ancient) theory
In recent years, many scholars have revived a very ancient argument that the date of December 25 was actually chosen precisely because it fell nine months after March 25. Here’s how it worked: Many early Church Fathers considered that Jesus was crucified on the 14th day of the Jewish Lunar month, Nisan (as the Gospel of John records). This date was the equivalent of March 25 on the Roman (solar) calendar. Great figures in Roman antiquity were assumed to have lived “complete years.” In other words, the day that they died was assumed to have been the exact day that they entered into the world, however many years earlier. If Jesus died on March 25 on the Roman calendar, these Church Fathers assumed that he entered into the world on March 25, some 33 years earlier. And when did he enter into the world? At the Annunciation, where Mary gave her fiat, and Christ was conceived in her womb; and nine months later, on December 25, he would have been born.
And in the East...
At any rate, and regardless of the reason, during the early fourth century, the Christian West began to observe December 25 as the feast of Christ’s Nativity. But a different date arose in the Churches of the Eastern part of the Empire. In the Christian East, around the same time, Churches adopted January 6 as the date of a feast day which commemorated all of the mysteries of Christ, up to the time of his public ministry: his birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi, his Baptism in the Jordan and his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. These were all celebrated as “epiphanoi”, or “manifestations” of Christ’s divinity.
It seems that the Eastern Churches, too, in settling on January 6 as their day of Epiphany, did so by calculations based (in the same way as the West), on the date of Christ’s crucifixion. 14 Nisan on the Jewish calendar corresponds to April 6 on the local Greek calendars in the Roman east. Thus, following the same logic as was mentioned above, making January 6 (in their reckoning) the correct day of Christ’s birth.
Eventually, over time, the Christian West and the Christian East began to recognize one another’s feasts and by the late fourth century, December 25 was imported onto Eastern Christian calendars as a separate feast of Christ’s Nativity while January 6 found a place on Western calendars as Epiphany. The emphasis in the West has on Epiphany has long been on the visit of the Gentile Magi as a “manifestation” of Christ’s divinity mission to save all of the world. In the Christian East, today is known as Theophany, stressing the manifestation of Christ not only as messiah, but as God.
What happened to Christmastide?
Traditionally, Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas Season (also known as Christmastide). That is why it is said that there are twelve days of Christmas. The time between December 25 and January 6 was one of continuous feasting which had Twelfthnight (the night of January 5) as its climax in celebration. But I also have to point out that we won’t celebrate Epiphany in the Church (at least in our diocese) until this coming Sunday, January 8. The deep-seated tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas in our culture was evidently not taken into account when the Catholic bishops in our country began moving the commemoration of Epiphany to the first Sunday after January 1. The Holy See approved this move in 1984. The move did away with Christmastide and makes that cheesy old carol completely nonsensical.
Laissez les bons temps reouler!
Regardless of Church-mandated movement, today is still important in parts of the Deep South where Carnival is celebrated. Twelfthnight is the official kickoff for the Carnival Season in New Orleans, Mobile and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where many of our friends will now begin a season of parades, balls and king cakes that ends on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday.
So, have a slice of king cake and have a wonderful Epiphany (I guess I can say that again this Sunday). So, laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll!).