Here I sit, writing on Monday, December 28, the Fourth Day of Christmas. I can hear the question: “What do you mean Fourth Day of Christmas?” “Wasn’t Christmas last Friday, the 25th?” Here is my answer:
In 567, the Council of Tours “proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast.”
Within the Twelve Days of Christmas, there are celebrations both secular and religious.
Christmas Day, December 25, is celebrated by Christians as the Nativity of the Lord. It is a public holiday in many nations, including some where most of the population is not Christian.
December 26 is “St. Stephen’s Day,” a feast day in the Western Church. In Great Britain and its former colonies, it is also the secular holiday of Boxing Day.
New Year’s Eve, December 31, is the feast of Pope Saint Sylvester the First and is known also as “Silvester” (not the cat). The transition that evening to the new year is an occasion for secular festivities in many nations, and in several languages is known as “Saint Sylvester Night.”
He was the 33rd pope and one of his alleged miracles was the curing of Emperor Constantine of leprosy by the virtue of the baptismal water administered by Sylvester!
Another legend has Sylvester slaying a dragon. He is often depicted with the dying beast.
New Year’s Day on Jan. 1 is an occasion for further secular festivities or for rest from the celebrations of the night before.
However, for many Christians it is a day which celebrates Mary as “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” as Luke 2:19 tells us.
Other Christians celebrate the day as the “The Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In Luke 2:21 it says, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
Early colonists from England brought the custom of making wreaths on Christmas Eve.
They would remain hung on each home’s front door from Christmas Night (first night of Christmas) through Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning, January 6.
As was already the tradition in their native England, all decorations would be taken down by Epiphany morning and the remainder of the edibles would be consumed.
A French custom, copied in New Orleans, is the making of a special cake, the “King Cake” for Epiphany.
The New Orleans tradition involves a purple, green and gold pastry, a small plastic baby, and a party.
The King Cake is baked with the plastic baby hidden inside. The person who gets the slice with the baby in it must host the next party. Rather an early start on Mardi Gras!
Our tree and decorations shine every night until the day after Twelfth Night. Call me an old fogy traditionalist, but those are my reasons and I’m sticking to them.
Happy New Year.
The Rev. Dr. Mike Fay is rector of Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Salida.