The first time I really understood that Christmas was twelve days was when I visited Mexico as a child. I think the churches in America were probably still singing Christmas songs but nothing ever really felt like Christmas after New Year’s the way it did in Mexico.
Ever since experiencing that, my family and I have been trying to really live those twelve days (and, subsequently, once I learned about it, the more minor “Christmastide” season which technically lasts until February 2nd). But despite what I say and do, it often doesn’t really feel like Christmas after about a week— at least not to me. This year, I realized what I think is the source of the problem.
Keeping the twelve days does not depend so much on how you celebrate Christmas. It depends on how you celebrate Epiphany. As long as Epiphany is a minor, insignificant day, the twelve days of Christmas will inevitably be a kind of “wind down”. Each day will begin to feel less and less Christmas-y. Sprits will waver; normalcy will begin to creep back in.
I now see that the reason it really felt like Christmas in Mexico was because Epiphany was coming. And, in Mexico, Epiphany is a really big deal. In America, for most people, Epiphany has been moved to a Sunday— which, like almost every other time something is moved from a stand-alone holiday to a Sunday, makes it instantly seem less significant. (Imagine if they moved Christmas to the nearest Sunday!) But even for those of us who still want to genuinely celebrate that Sunday or celebrate the original date of January 6th, we often aren’t really sure what to do, given the larger community doesn’t really celebrate. There are little traditions we might adopt— baked goods, treats left by the traveling kings, simply moving the kings to the manger scene— and all of these traditions are thoroughly good and worthwhile. But I’ve realized, it will never be enough until I, myself, treat Epiphany like I treat Christmas.
Doing that does not come down to a particular formula of a particular combination of activities. It starts with the heart. And then it flows out from there. How would I celebrate this day if it mattered as much as Christmas? It might mean a big dinner with extended family. It might mean opening gifts under the tree. It might mean taking off work the whole day. It might mean keeping kids home from school or taking a break from homeschooling. The point is, we all know what we do on Christmas. So, if we are interested in fully celebrating Christmas, we must properly celebrate Epiphany, as if it were Christmas.
Because the truth is, we owe that beautiful, tender, precious holiday so remarkably widespread amongst a thoroughly secular world— that crown of the year that we call Christmas— we owe it to Epiphany. Those three kings were responsible for spreading the good news throughout the continents. We do not know to what extent they spread their news, or how it would have spread without them. But we do know that their mission mattered very much and they probably lost their lives for it. Our tradition teaches us that the Epiphany of the Three Kings represents the Epiphany to all the Gentiles, and all the world— to us. Christmas is a private (albeit wonderful) affair— known only to shepherds and angels— before Epiphany. Epiphany is the reason people of all languages can sing Oh Come Let Us Adore Him in their own native tongue. Epiphany is the reason the Little Town of Bethlehem is the sweetest town, from the perspective of every other town in the world. Epiphany is the reason I can go to Mass anywhere and know what’s going on. Epiphany widened the stable walls so that every single person who wanted to be there could be there. Epiphany is the reason I might hear Silent Night walking through a mall thoroughly corrupted by consumerism and materialism. Epiphany is the reason for the season, because without the Epiphany, the world remains largely in the dark. Because of Epiphany, we are all invited to see the star. We are all invited to see the Light.
So, we have a few hours left of this “Twelfth Night” as it was traditionally called. How we feel and think about Epiphany determines how we celebrate it. How we celebrate it determines how it is remembered in our own hearts and the hearts of our children. And how it is remembered determines how we look forward to it again with expectation. Christmas is only the beginning. And it is allowed to grow and become richer during the twelve days if it has Epiphany as its glorious end.
Now, Epiphany inevitably has a bittersweet kind of quality. The kings had to eventually leave the Baby Jesus as we must eventually return to “normal life”. But a proper Epiphany, celebrated well, can give us strength for the longer journey– to the Eternal Bethlehem.