12th Day of Christmas, January 5th: Twelfth Night, Eve of Epiphany

The Twelfth Day of Christmas – January 5th

It is often called the “Christmas star” and it is seen in crèches and in artworks depicting the Nativity of our Lord.  But the star does not actually come into the story until the entrance of the Wise Men, and Matthew indicates that their visit was some time after the birth of Jesus, perhaps as much as two years.  By the time the Wise Men arrive, the Holy Family is neither in a stable nor in an inn, but a house.  We do not have to be literalists about details like this, but we could save the star for the end of Christmas, and as a segue into Epiphany.  If the Wise Men for your crèche have been making their way through the house or even just across the room, today might be the day to hang the star.  Before hanging the star, get out your favorite cookie recipe and your star cookie cutter and make some star cookies.  Make enough to have some samples when you hang the star, and more to eat tomorrow when Epiphany is in full swing.  The shepherds and the angels should be back in their box.  In fact, they could have been removed days ago.  The Wise Men may need to make their visit to a stable, rather than a house, but, as we said, we do not have to be literalists about this.  And, wherever they encounter the King for whom they have been searching, they may arrive in the crèche either tonight or tomorrow morning.

Epiphany really begins this evening, as Twelfth Night is the Eve of the Epiphany, so we have two reasons for a party:  the end of Christmas and the beginning of Epiphany.  In the middle ages, these Twelfth Night parties could get quite rowdy.  It was the Feast of Fools in which the order of the world was turned upside down, with fools reigning as kings and all sorts of people taking on roles quite the opposite of their true character. Shakespeare, in his play by the same name, gives us a picture of such a topsy-turvy world as Viola masquerades as a man, people fall in love across class lines, and the lowly indulge in ridiculous delusions of grandeur.  It would be quite foolish to deny the Christian significance of all of this.  There are few things more serious and true than the games people play.  The medieval Feast of Fools reminds us that Christmas celebrates nothing less than a world turned upside down in which God becomes man in order that man might become divine.  So, party on!

As Christmas (“Twelvetide”) comes to an end, some say that it is time to take down the Christmas greens. Traditionally, they are burned in a great bonfire. Bonfires are festive in themselves, but on this night, the fire is a sign and a reminder of spiritual things. First of all, it is a continuing reminder of the true Light who came into the world at the darkest time of the year. Secondly, it reminds us of the star which led the pagan philosophers towards spiritual illumination. Next, from ancient times, Epiphany has been known as the Feast of Lights, recalling the persecuted Christians who carried candles and torches to their secret meetings at night in the catacombs, and sometimes became torches themselves at the hands of their persecutors. Finally, it was also an occasion when catechumens were baptized, and thus illuminated by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Today, Baptism is often celebrated on Epiphany and it is a custom of longstanding to present the newly baptized with a candle to remind them of what has happened to them.

It would be appropriate to begin Evening Prayer on Twelfth Night with the bonfire of the greens and to carry the flame from the bonfire into church to light the candles at the singing of the hymn to the light. Here is a prayer which might be used to bless the fire as the bonfire is lit:

O God, who sent fire from heaven upon the sacrifice offered by Elijah, the prophet of the Anointed One; who led the children of Israel through the desert with the pillar of fire; who led wise men from the East to the house of Wisdom by a fiery star; and who fulfilled the prophecy of John the Forerunner by sending the Christ who baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire: Pour your blessing upon this Epiphany flame that it may be a reminder to all of the true Light who came into the world as at this time, and who ignites us with the Holy Spirit to lead us on our pilgrimage with the fire of his Love; through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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