I’m Trying to Start an Epiphany Tradition, But It’s Not Going Great

When I did a brief stint at a migrant support center a few years ago, my supervisors were this lovely Mixteco couple. Early that January, when all the Christmas and New Year’s festivities had subsided and I was just steeling myself to face the Pacific Northwest’s “Long Dark” of late winter, I arrived work to find . . . cake.

“Tenemos roscón de reyes, if you want try it,” said my boss.

“Oh, sí, ¿qué es eso?”

“Es para el Día de los Tres Reyes. Es tradicional.”

Roscón de reyes simply means, “King’s Crown”, a tradition imported from Spain to the New World. On Epiphany—when the visit of the tres reyes is celebrated—the family gathers and celebrates together, and eats a roscón de reyes.

Sounds like my kind of shit, thought I, and I headed eagerly to the back room to find the cake waiting in a large, rose-colored donut box. The plastic top panel revealed the contents: a ring of yeasty yellow cake, coated in powdered sugar, and bejeweled with some kind of green and orange . . . were they like gummy worms? Candied orange peel?

I still couldn’t tell you.

I cut a slice for myself and brought it into the common area. When I took a fork to it, the tines found a small little white piece of plastic, which emerged slantwise from the yellow cake onto the paper plate.

“Oh, encontraste el niñito,” said my boss, matter-of-factly.

I looked down at my plate. It was a figurine of a little child.

“You . . . you find the child Jesus,” he said again in English. “Like the tres reyes. Now you host the party for Candelaría.”


I didn’t end up hosting a Candlemas party that year, but I loved the idea of a contagious party, so when we moved to California, my wife and I invited some friends over for a Three Kings Party on the night of Epiphany. The Mexican bakery in town, El Rosal, had roscón de reyes, so I went down and picked one up. I explained to our five or so guests, friends at the Christian camp where we lived, how it worked: you get the baby Jesus in your slice, then you host the next party. Simple.

Except there were four niñitos in the cake for some reason. That created enough confusion that nobody was on the hook to throw a party for Candlemas on February 2nd.

The next year I was working with four high schoolers planning to launch a youth group at the church where I worked. When I realized our weekly meeting would fall on Epiphany, I called El Rosal and, in (now rusty) Spanish, asked for a small cake with just one niñito. Whoever got baby Jesus in their cake was king or queen for the night, and got a crown and everything. One of our sophomores, Mason, got the little figurine, so we hailed him as King (“Long live King Mason!”) but he was too embarrassed to give us any orders. But it was still fun.

Last year I wanted to make a roscón de reyes that my wife could eat. My wife has Crohn’s diesease and mostly eats an AIP (autoimmune protocol) diet. Wheat and sugar are out. So I looked up a Spanish website that had an AIP roscón. Something went wrong, however, and the cake melted into a puddle in the oven both times I attempted to make it.

And this year is the pandemic, and things are complicated, so we didn’t really celebrate Epiphany at all.

I’m really bummed about it. I’m worried my idea is petering out.

I’m stubborn when it comes to these things, however, so you can bet I’ll be back at it next year, trying to get my friends to gather on Epiphany to eat a roscón, and hopefully on the hook to host another party in February. I’m thinking about adapting it since we have no cultural context for Candlemas here in the States. Maybe . . . Mardi Gras?

Talk to me in a year. We’ll see how it goes.

Epiphany: Three Kings, a Baptism, and a Wedding

Though Epiphany was on Sunday most of the United States, and isn’t until Wednesday for others, the readings this week are all about the holy day. It’s a celebration of the revelation of Christ’s divinity. Epiphany originally celebrated three different events in Christ’s life, all of which, in their own way, reveal his divine identity: the arrival of the Magi, his baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana. Today’s reading, from St Peter Chrysologus:

Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, myrrh for the one who is to die.

Today Christ enters the Jordan to wash away the sin of the world. John himself testifies that this is why he has come: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Today a servant lays his hand on the Lord, a man lays his hand on God, John lays his hand on Christ, not to forgive but to receive forgiveness.

Today Christ works the first of his signs from heaven by turning water into wine. But water [mixed with wine] still has to be changed into the sacrament of his blood, so that Christ may offer spiritual drink from the chalice of his body.

I Don’t Know When To Take Down My Christmas Decorations

Back in my SPU days I had this great professor, Dr. Spina. Dr. Spina was a liturgy enthusiast (read: snob), as is proper for any Episcopalian, and he used to put us low-church evangelicals to shame with questions such as, “How do you know your church service has begun?”

We’d all just sort of blink at him like morons.

Another one of his questions that seemed designed to stupefy us was simply, “When does the Christmas season begin?”

We were all too intimidated to risk giving the wrong answer to what seemed like an easy question. Dr. Spina would take a dramatic pause, daring us to embarrass ourselves.

Christmas!” he would say, as if it should be obvious. “Christmas begins . . . on Christmas.”

Oh.

Then he’d start in on his lecture on the water-carriers in the book of Judges, or some such topic.

So, here’s my new dummy question, which I still can’t get a straight answer on.

When does the Christmas season end?

Commercially, obviously, Christmas is over at the end of the day on December 25th, when all the presents have been opened and the wrapping paper is piled like snowdrifts onto the living room floor.

Liturgically speaking, things are a bit harder to pin down.

Traditionally, as the song goes, Christmas has twelve days, starting on Christmas day and extending until Epiphany on January 6th. That’s a nice neat number. The twelve days of Christmas. Some denominations, like Episcopalians and Lutherans, have mostly preserved this number. I quite like the simplicity of that, and for the last few years I’ve been taking my decorations down on Epiphany.

But as it turns out, for Catholics, Epiphany no longer marks the end of the Christmas season.

I recently discovered that the Catholic Church has made several changes to this tradition over the last 100 years, and has made things a little trickier for us. The first was creating the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus’ baptism was originally part of the Epiphany celebration. But Epiphany also celebrates the arrival of the Magi and this aspect of the feast had eclipsed Jesus’ baptism in the popular imagination. In order to ensure that the baptism was also commemorated, the Church instituted a new feast day on the Sunday after Epiphany. So now it’s the Baptism of the Lord that marks the end of the Christmas season, which would be sometime between January 7th and 12th.

To make things more complicated, certain dioceses allow Epiphany itself to be moved to the Sunday between January 2nd and 8th, which means (I’ll spare you the liturgical trigonometry) that the Baptism of the Lord could be celebrated as late as January 13th.

So this year, Christmas ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year is on January 10th.

Is that when I should take down my decorations?

Here’s another wrinkle: since the Christmas season commemorates the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, there’s a good case to made that the Christmas season isn’t really over until February 2nd, traditionally called Candlemas, when Catholics celebrate Mary’s ritual purification, the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, and the first entrance of Jesus into the temple as a baby.

In fact, as tradition has it, if you don’t manage to get your Christmas decorations down on Epiphany Eve (the twelfth night of Christmas), you’re supposed to wait until Candlemas to do so, or it’s bad luck!

So if I miss my chance on Epiphany or Baptism of the Lord, I get another few weeks of Christmas decor before Candlemas arrives on February 2nd.

In another sense, I suppose, we are always working inside the Advent-Christmas cycle and commemorating the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Even outside of Advent through Baptism, there’s the Annunciation on March 25th, where we celebrate Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit (nine months before Christmas day), the Feast of the Visitation on May 31st, celebrating Mary visiting Elizabeth while they were both pregnant, and the Birth of St John the Baptist on June 24th, chosen due to the timing of Elizabeth’s pregnancy six months before Mary’s. All three of these dates are related to December 25th in the liturgical calendar.

So, should I . . . never take down my decorations? Maybe I can leave up all the outside lights all year round without embarrassment, since in a certain sense we are celebrating Jesus’ birth all year long.

I’m joking, of course. Having a Christmas tree up in July would be some kind of liturgical malpractice.

What about you: do you have a traditional “end” to the Christmas season in your home?