“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”
Tonight is Twelfth Night or the Eve of the Epiphany. Yesterday, I learned of another name for it favored by Scots English and Irish in Tennessee and the Appalachian mountains, they called this “Old Christmas.”
In my family, Christmas was never over until Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6th, the day of the visitation of the Kings. It was always the day our decorations came down. Few pay any attention to the significance of this event today, but the roots of this liturgical feast day are deep. It is known to have been recognized in 194 AD, while Christmas, or the Nativity, did not become traditionally celebrated until the 4th century. Also called Theophany, meaning God made manifest, Old Christmas is the day when the Christ child was presented to the gentiles in the form of the Three Kings. They gave him gifts, he was our gift.
During the middle ages, all twelve days of the holiday season were celebrated, different saints remembered each day, but Christmas (from Christ’s mass) was a more religious event. Small presents might be exchanged then or on Christmas eve, but the real gift giving of the holiday was on Twelfth night. It was a night of drinking wassail and eating the (Three) Kings cake. Tucked inside of the cake was a bean, and sometimes an additional pea. The lucky finder of it would become the “Lord of Misrule” (the pea added a Lady to his side) who would take charge of the merry-making. Even Old King Henry had to follow his commands, and thus the world was “turned upside down,” just like it is in Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night.
So Old Christmas was a lot more like what our current Christmas is, and if we still celebrated the Twelve Days of Christmas as of old, my husband would have his wish for Christmas to be a quiet trip to the stable to see and visit the Child, and Visa mass, as he calls it, would be delayed until Epiphany.
Yesterday, at church, we “undecorated” and I put away the figures from the crèche I wrote about a few, short, weeks ago. I admit to lingering over the task. I always hate to lose Christmas. The world always seems a little darker when the Christmas lights come down.
These last weeks, I have been speculating on the “thirteen day,” the day after the last celebration, even thinking of the thirteenth day as all the days that aren’t Christmas days. Do we really have to lose the wonder? Does the feeling of “goodwill toward men” have to end when the shepherds are back to tending their flocks? When the angels stop singing must the music of Christmas really be silenced?
On one hand, I do believe Thurman has it right. After the twelve days, like the twelve apostles after Easter, we should roll up our sleeves. We have work to do to make Christmas real for others. I have learned that is actually a blessing to us as well. We need to share our gifts with the world around us for our own fulfillment, as well as for theirs.
On the other hand, does ordinary time have to be all winter and work? I don’t think so. I think like the newly enlightened Scrooge, we need to keep Christmas in our hearts the whole year, and like the Grinch, rediscover that Christmas is not stopped when the trees and the stockings and the wrapping paper are gone.
So I wish happy Old Christmas to you, tonight and tomorrow, and on the thirteenth day after that. May the angels and the kings, the shepherds and the babe, find places to live within you, and may echoes of carols steal upon your ear whenever you need a little joy.