“The magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
I love Christmas as much as most Christians, but I am truly enamored with Epiphany. It’s easy to be entranced by the magic of Christmas, with its presents, carols, and sparkling lights. But by Epiphany (January 6 in the Western church and January 19 in the Eastern church), the outlook can be a bit bleaker. The presents have been unwrapped, enjoyed, and, often, cast aside by this point. The bloom is off the rose of our resolutions, the trees are needing to be tossed, and the sparkling lights are back in their boxes (or staring at us unblinking from the tree asking why we haven't put them away yet). For those in the northern hemisphere, it’s also cold. Really cold. And wet. And grey. It can be easy to slip into the doldrums.
But part of the good news of Jesus Christ is that Christmas isn’t the end of the party—not in the grand existential sense, and not in the more literal one. Though we might’ve sung the famous carol, we often forget that Christmas is in fact a 12-day festival. Then immediately following it is Epiphany, a celebration of Christ’s miraculous appearing that is followed (in many church traditions) by an entire Epiphany season. In fact, extensive Epiphany celebrations are much older than Christmas, and were common well into the 20th century. For Christians seeking to find meaning in the midst of a long grey winter, there are many Epiphany traditions that I think we would do well to give a place in our contemporary lives.
In the Western church, the central Epiphany story is that of Jesus’ revelation to the magi. Though pageant versions of the story tend to differ a bit from the biblical narrative, the Bible story is actually quite exciting. A retinue of magi (wisdom-bearers, story-keepers, and alchemists from what is now Iran and surrounding regions, and very likely not all men) come to investigate and end up gathering in a celebration of this God who has come as a child, and even wind up saving his life. All over the world, there are Epiphany traditions that involve going house to house in one’s neighborhood, singing, consuming warm drinks, re-telling the story of the magi, and just generally making merry. Many traditions also involve a “king cake,” usually round, in which a representation of the Christ-child has been hidden (often a piece of fruit, a pea, or even a tiny baby doll). The one who, like the magi, searches for the Christ-child and finds him, gets to “reign” over the celebrations. It’s also common to participate in the “chalking of the doors,” when Christians write the year and abbreviate “Christus Mansionem Benedicat (Christ bless this house)” as follows: 2+0+C+M+B+22.
You may also be pleased to learn that there is a long-standing tradition of not taking down one’s Christmas decorations until Epiphany (sometimes even until Candlemas, February 2), so feel free to give yourself a break from the decoration stress! One of the most exciting Epiphanytide traditions is that of the remembrance of baptism, which happens on January 19, and, for many Christians, involves plunging into a frozen river. While we needn’t necessarily risk death to remember our connection to the death and rising of Jesus, there are many creative ways that we can use water to connect us to God and one another in meaningful ways. What can your community come up with? How might you unite your experience with the baptism of the baby who came to set us free and give us life?