For reasons too numerous and too vague to recall, Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings, has always been a special day for me. I love the story of the traveling Magi, the romance of fold, frankincense and myrrh, the charm of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and, most of all, the fact that the tradition in my family was to allow the Christmas tree to rein in all its glory till January 6 when it usually met a fiery, but glorious, end in the fireplace. And then were was the hallowed rite of positioning the Three Kings in their rightful place on the manger scene.
Though customs differ by culture, those that endured in my family are heavily influenced by the Irish heritage, so those are the stories into which I delved in anticipation of Epiphany 2012. Now I have more good reasons to celebrate January 6.
In Ireland Epiphany is celebrated as Little Christmas because, on the Julian calendar, January 6 was the Feast of the Nativity. By tradition Little Christmas is also Women’s Christmas (nollaig na mBan). On Women’s Day the men presumably took on the women’s chores while the women socialize, go shopping, enjoy small gifts from family members, or just draw a deep breath after the holiday preparations – and school vacations. In his classic work, The Year in Ireland: A Calendar, Kevin Danaher notes that the term “Women’s Christmas” is explained by the assumption that “Christmas Day was marked by beef, and whiskey, men’s fare, while on Little Christmas Day the dainties preferred by women – cake, tea, wine, were more in evidence.”
One delightful story about Little Christmas is recalled by Bridget Haggerty writing in Irish Customs and Culture. ”This was a very special occasion when the women would gather for what we’d call a high tea – with wine! There are some who say that water turns into wine on this day in honor of the Magi, others who maintain the miracle occurs because it’s the Anniversary of the Wedding Feast of Cana.”
In Ireland today Epiphany is a holy day of obligation, a day when Catholic faithful are required to attend Mass. Many churches throughout Ireland feature Epiphany processions with carols and readings, particularly stories that celebrate the Three Wisemen from the East. In some communities families are invited to share unwanted Christmas gifts to share with those less fortunate – a more generous form of what modern Americans practice as “re-gifting.”
And so my holiday decorations will remain in place for another day, the Majoi will arrive at the stable, and I will ponder a reasonable strategy for instituting the worthy custom of Women’s Christmas on this side of the pond.