“We don’t do anything special for Christmas.”
“She doesn’t know who Santa is.”
“We celebrate Epiphany.”
“I’m not putting up a Christmas Tree.”
All of these sentences have come out of my mouth and earned me some incredulous stares. Even before I had children, I decided that I wanted to focus on the reason for the holidays, not the trappings of the holidays. Both my and my husband’s families gather for Christmas, but it’s simply a get-together with a bonus present exchange. I couldn’t imagine, after the hubbub, to go home and do it all over again. So I decided we would observe an entirely different holiday, make our own traditions, and tailor the focus where we wanted it.
The obvious choice for a generally unobserved religious holiday was Epiphany, King’s Day, or Twelfth Night. Epiphany means “manifestation” or the showing forth of Jesus as divine Son of God. Christmas marks Jesus’ humanity; Epiphany highlights His divinity. In the first century church, the only observed holiday was Easter, the second century added Epiphany, and the third century added Christmas. The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” refers to the twelve days between Christmas (Dec. 25) and Epiphany (Jan. 6).
The biggest observers of this holiday are Latin American Catholics and the Orthodox churches in Europe, so I researched all their traditions. Here are the fun things that many of them do to celebrate (besides liturgical practices):
- A King’s Day Cake. A cake is baked with a ring (or other item) inside. Whoever gets the crown gets to be king for the day, and the others serve this person.
- The children take down the Christmas tree that has hidden candy and cookies. The children keep the spoils they find while dismantling the decorated tree.
- A procession, usually made up of children dressed as Wise Men, parades around the neighborhood caroling and carrying the Bethlehem star. Some give away coins or treats, others bless each house they stop at, and others receive donations to the church that is typically the final destination of the procession.
- A presentation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or other plays, pageants, and dances.
- Men scramble into the ice cold water to retrieve something thrown there, cut out a cross-shaped hole in the ice to be baptized in, bless the water, or just show off their manliness—predecessor to the Polar Bear Plunge, I assume.
- Children leave out stockings or shoes for the Wise Men to fill when they visit, or they fill a box with grass and hay and place it under their beds for the Wise Men’s camels, and the grass and hay then get replaced with treats.
- Yule Log, Wassail, and other specialty food which they gather together to eat.
In creating my own Epiphany traditions, I wanted the emphasis to be on Jesus and less on ourselves. But as is typical with me, I decided I want to do it my way. So here are the things I’ve decided to do with our family:
- For the Twelve Days of Christmas, I’ll read a book each night about Christmas and its true meaning. For the younger children, I have a nativity set they can play with that I can use to tell them the story.
- We’ll leave our boots outside the front door and hang a star to guide the Wise Men to us to fill the boots with stocking stuffer items. I never liked Santa, but I like these historic gift-givers.
- The Wise Men will also leave three gifts per person (one for each of the traditional three wise men):
- A gift to represent gold, which will be money equal to the age of the recipient—however, this gift will not be to keep, it will be used to buy Jesus a gift. We will read Matthew 25 and discuss that giving to poor people, visiting prisoners, etc. is how we give Jesus gifts. Then we’ll brainstorm options, whether purchasing something from Heifer International or similar ministries, giving the money to or volunteering at the various charities available in our area, or seeing a need and using our money and time to meet it. And make a plan on when and how to do so. Any extra money from piggy banks would certainly be accepted.
- A gift representing wisdom, aka books (or how-to DVDs, CDs). I limit myself to no more than 3 books per person in this package or, knowing myself. there’ll be more books than square footage in my house!
- And a gift or themed package for fun—the typical “big” Christmas gift.
- Our extended families have never read the Christmas story together, so that was one of the main things I wanted to incorporate—perhaps when the children get older, I will have them write a Christmas play during the 12 days to perform for a nursing home. I really like the idea of a procession of wise men, but I think no one would know what to do with us if we showed up on their lawns singing on January 6th. So, the nursing home/shut-in audience will satisfy my desire to try that aspect and be another service project for a gift to Jesus.
- I don’t like the king-for-a-day aspect of a King’s Cake because I could see that creating quite a bit of sibling rivalry and focus on ourselves, so since we are celebrating this day as Jesus’s birthday party, we will bake a birthday cake for Jesus.
- Getting rid of the cake, er, game night with friends. To share our Jesus birthday cake and spend some time with others, we intend to invite a different family over every year on the evening of Epiphany (or closest weekend evening) to play board games and will probably purchase a new game every year to accommodate our children’s ages.
I want to challenge you to think about your holiday celebrations. Did your family focus on the things you wanted to focus on? If not, how will you address it for next year? Life is too short to do what everyone else expects you to do. Be bold, dare to get stared at with incredulity, and make sure you family is making the memories you want to make.
Which of these Epiphany traditions sounded the most fun or interesting to you?
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