Since the Council of Tours in 567 AD, there has been an acknowledgement by the Christian churches that the days after Christmas constitute a period of celebration and joy between the traditional dates of Christmas and Epiphany. This led to the concept of the twelve days of Christmas and their coming to an end on twelfth night, the eve of Epiphany on 6 January. Of course, back then they didn’t have actual vacation to worry about, not too much in the way of disposable income and nobody celebrated New Year’s Day on 1 January, formally or informally, until the end of the 16th century. So the “twelve days of Christmas” had an uninterrupted 1000 years to get well established. Until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in Great Britain in 1752, 25 March was New Year’s Day, a much more sensible “start of the spring” new year festival, but often coinciding with Easter. From Tudor times onward, the three great festivals of Christmas, as they are today, were celebrated during Christmastide.
In a world that largely fails to celebrate – really celebrate – anything that is rooted in the life and work of Jesus Christ, probably its most important and influential person ever, we are reduced to celebrating less weighty matters, such as time off work, parties and the anticipation of a festival. Few Christians celebrate Epiphany in anything like the way it used to be celebrated, but it is worth the effort. The strange gifts listed in the 1780 song The 12 Days of Christmas are no theology, for sure, but they remind us, as Mike Morris did in school on Thursday, of the very strangeness of the gifts brought to Jesus by the magi. Epiphany is an older festival than Christmas, by some margin, and has been celebrated in as many different ways, many of which persist in continental Europe. I am glad of this. The cycle of the Church year is one of the strongest and most life-affirming cycles, and reminds us constantly to give thanks and to praise our King and maker for the order and pleasure of having such a constant stream of markers of the work of his Son.
The assembled decorations above came off our tree last night. This year its decoration was left to the offspring, and as a result the baubles were left near the bottom whilst assorted fluffy animals formed a menagerie near the top of the tree “where they could talk to each other” – we are talking about grown adults in their 20s and 30s, your understand.
There is much more to say than this, but to wish everyone a richly blessed Epiphany, a new and godly sense of being a “strange gift” to one another, a willingness to look back on all we do with thankfulness to the God in whom we live and move and have our being, and the time set aside to think about the strange guys from north of Mosul who found their way to Bethlehem with curious clobber in their saddle bags – this is the intention of writing this. Happy, really happy, Epiphany.