Today is celebrated as Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, in countries with a Christian heritage. It is also the Twelfth Day of Christmas, marking the end of the season. Just as with Christmas, most of the observances have more to do with celebration than religion.
If you believe much Christmas marketing, the twelve days of Christmas count down to December 25. Historically, however, Christmas is Day 1. In England in the Middle Ages, the days between Christmas and Epiphany were filled with continuous feasting. Shakespeare used this season as a setting for his play Twelfth Night. Many believe this two-week long holiday has roots in earlier pagan mid-winter celebrations such as the Roman Saturnalia or Yuletide in Germany. Another suggestion is that the celebration grew out of Natalis Invicti, a popular feast of a sun-worshipping cult in ancient Rome that began on December 25.
In England and the American colonies, holiday decorations were put up on Christmas and remained until January 6. Then a special king cake was baked to celebrate the visit of the Three Kings to the child Jesus. This was a cake with a small trinket baked inside. Whoever got the piece of cake with the trinket had either special privileges or obligations. The king cake custom is still observed in New Orleans but in conjunction with Mardi Gras, rather than Christmas. (Mardi Gras is the day before Lent starts, also a religious connection with celebrations.)
Children in Spain, Mexico and South American countries traditionally received gifts from the Three Kings on January 6 (rather than Christmas) although that is changing with the global popularity of Santa Claus and his connection with Christmas Eve. These countries also celebrate with king cakes. According to tradition, the finder of the trinket must take it to church on Candlemas Day, February 2. This marks the presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple forty days after his birth, according to Jewish custom. Often, however, these days the trinket-finder hosts a party on February 2 rather than making a church visit.
It may seem that Hawaii has no need of a mid-winter holiday, since the days remain warm here year-round. And yet, those who stay through the season are able to detect a winter pattern. It is cooler and rainier. Ancient Hawaiians, too, had a winter holiday that included some religious rituals and a lot of games. But Makahiki lasted four months rather than two weeks!
PS: As I passed by Honolulu Hale (city hall) this morning, the workers were taking down the holiday decorations. Aloha until next year Shaka Santa and Tutu Mele!
Posted by: Bruce Fisher on Jan 6, 2011