Friday, January 06, 2012


Today is Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, aka the day I start feeling guilty about the fact we haven’t yet taken our Christmas tree down! (Don’t worry, it’s an artificial tree, so not a fire hazard, and we have an excuse--Mr. Fraser and I have both been unsuccessfully fighting off a cold since we got home from our holiday travels.)

Epiphany isn’t well-known in present-day America outside of liturgical churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, the churches of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and the Episcopalian Church. In the Western churches, it celebrates the visit of the Three Kings to the infant Jesus, while the Eastern churches observe it as a remembrance of Christ’s baptism.

The regional and national customs associated with Epiphany are far too long to list here. (If you don’t believe me, check Wikipedia!) The writer in me would love to do something with the Bulgarian custom of an all-male dance in icy waters. I also think they have the right idea in New Orleans, where Epiphany is the first day of Carnival season, which runs through Mardi Gras. As someone with a mild tendency to seasonal affective disorder, I find the unremitting dreariness of January something of a slog without the festivities of November and December to distract me, so I’m all for more holidays to drive off the darkness!

As a Regency writer, I might write characters who observe Epiphany by drinking wassail or eating Twelfth Cake. (Though I’d probably do a little more research first to find out how often such traditions were still observed then, since I know Christmastide in general was less of a big deal in the Regency than it was hundreds of years before in the medieval era or a few decades later when Christmas started taking on its modern pattern under the Victorians.) But if one of my characters had a sudden realization of a critical truth, he or she would not describe that moment as “having an epiphany.” Per the Oxford English Dictionary, that usage dates to the latter half of the 19th century, and it didn’t become commonplace until the 20th.

How did “epiphany” come to mean both a Christian holiday and an “aha!” moment? The word comes from the Greek “epiphaneia,” which means “manifestation” or “striking appearance.” Originally, it referred to divine visitations of various kinds--e.g. in the OED listing I saw one example where I think a modern writer would use “avatar.” Over time, the definition grew to also include internal visions, the striking appearance of an idea that might change your life.

What about you? Do you observe Epiphany? Have you had any recent epiphanies? And have you taken your Christmas decorations down yet? If not, take heart--according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, some traditions give you until Candlemas on Feb. 2!

1 comment:

Alyssa Everett said...

Being Episcopalian, I do celebrate Epiphany, but my favorite tradition belongs to another faith and involves an all-male dip in the water reminiscent of the Bulgarian dance. In Tarpon Springs, Florida, near where I grew up, there's a beautiful Greek Orthodox cathedral, St. Nicholas. Every year on Epiphany, the Archbishop casts a white cross into a nearby bayou, and sixty young men dive into the water to retrieve it. The young man who comes up with the cross is carried on the shoulders of the other divers, blessed by the Archbishop, and destined for a year of good fortune. It's a really interesting celebration.