Most cultures celebrate either Christmas’s end or the new year’s beginning
We think of summer as the time for festivals, letting our hair down, celebrating the weather, and for delicious food eaten outdoors at barbeques and elaborate picnics.
But even in the dark days of winter, there are celebrations to mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
Of course, unlike the summer events, many of these festivities had more to do with surviving the hard times, or the time of the Wolf Moon, in January.
After all, anything could happen during the lean months.
Food could run out, frosts and snows could delay the return of spring, pestilence could strike.
The ancient Romans had an antidote to this uncertainty: Saturnalia, to honour the deity Saturn, began on December 17, and lasted to December 23.
Saturn was an agricultural deity, said to have reigned over the world during a golden age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without having to perform any tiresome labour, and also had social equality.
The revelries of Saturnalia, with its constant partying, over-indulging, and upturning of the social order, where masters became servants for the day, were supposed to reflect the conditions of this lost mythical age.
Some of the more vivid descriptions of vomitoriums, and other excesses, make our own celebrations look positively tame by comparison.
Early January has long been a time for celebrations, the Epiphany and the arrival of the Magi, those indomitable Three Wise Kings who bore precious gifts.
Every country has its own unique way of marking the occasion.
But more of that later.
Here at home, January 6 has also become associated with a forward-thinking event known as Nollaig na mBhan, Women’s Little Christmas, which is still enthusiastically celebrated.
Women hold parties, particularly in Cork and Kerry, have nice lunches in hotels, and get together with female friends and relatives, to mark an occasion when women’s considerable contribution over Christmas is fully celebrated.
January 6 is for taking down the cards and decorations, all those shining, glittering mementoes of the recent festivities. The house looks forlorn and empty in the hours after this denuding.
But, then, living with all the Christmas paraphernalia year round is not appealing either. And it would be counter-productive. Imagine all that dusting.
I keep one, small, unassuming decoration out, and imagine that, some day, I won’t need to put up decorations in December anymore.
An older tradition connected to January 6 is the eating of leftover food.
In many households, this would mean hoovering up thick slices of Christmas cake (which seems to get better the longer it is kept), the odd mince pie that has somehow escaped attention, and those half-eaten boxes of chocolates but with all the favourites long gone. Chocolate is a food, after all.
St John Chrysostom identified the significance of the meeting between the Magi and Herod’s court. He said: “The star had been hidden from them, so that, on finding themselves without their guide, they would have no alternative but to consult the Jews. In this way, the birth of Jesus would be made known to all”.
Until 1955, when Pope Pius Twelfth abolished all but three liturgical octaves, the Catholic Church celebrated the Epiphany as an eight-day feast.
For Western Christians, the feast primarily commemorates the coming of the Magi, while Eastern churches celebrate the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan. But the essence of the feast is the same — the manifestation of Christ to the world.
In some parts of Central Europe, the priest, wearing white vestments, blesses Epiphany water, Frankincense, gold and chalk.
The chalk is used to write the initials of the three Magi (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) and the phrase “may God bless this house.”
According to ancient custom, the priest announced the date of Easter on the Feast of the Epiphany.
In Bulgaria, on the Epiphany, which is known as the Day of Jordan, a priest throws a wooden cross into the freezing water and young men race to retrieve it.
This is considered to be a mark of honour, and it is said that good health will be bestowed upon the home of the swimmer who is first to reach the cross.
In Argentina, on The Day of Kings, children leave their shoes by the door, along with grass and water for the camels, in the hopes of finding a present in the morning.
In Mexico, and in many other Latin American countries, Santa Claus doesn’t have the same appeal, and it is the three kings who are the bearer of gifts, which they leave near the shoes of small children.
In England, Epiphany Eve is known as Twelfth Night, and it was a traditional time for mumming and for the wassail.
The Yule log was left burning until this day, and the charcoal left behind was preserved, to protect the house from fire and lightening. It was also a day for practical jokes and for plays.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first shown on this night, in 1601.
Food played a big part in Epiphany celebrations, with special cakes baked in many countries.
In England, Twelfth Cake was a rich, dense fruitcake, and whoever found the baked-in-bean was King for a Day. But that wasn’t the only surprise to be found in this crowded Twelfth Cake.
Whoever found the clove was the villain, whoever found the twig was the fool, and, devastatingly, the unfortunate soul who found the rag was designated the tart. What a rag was doing in a cake is not revealed.
Anything spicy or hot, like ginger snaps or spiced ale, was considered proper Twelfth Night fare, recalling the costly spices brought by the wise men.
Another Epiphany favourite was the jam tart, in particular a tart made into a six-point star to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem.
The discerning English cook sometimes searched for 13 different-coloured jams on the tart to bring good luck, and to create a dessert that looked like stained glass.
As the festive season draws to a definitive end, it’s time to look forward to the stretch in the evening and to the first daffodils, and perhaps just one last slice of Christmas cake…
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