Consider The Twelfth Night

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

I don’t know about you, but I’m repulsed every Fall when I see Halloween witches, Thanksgiving pilgrims, and Christmas Santa’s displayed on merchants’ shelves throughout the region – all at the same time!  I really cannot abide the commercialization of sacred moments in the liturgical calendar that blunts the meaning of the season, turning it into a sordid indulgence and stripping it of its historical/religious context.

For this reason, I’ve advocated for a long time a not-very-popular curative: remove all reasons for its commercialization.  In other words, treat Christmas like we treat Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Chanukah in the Jewish liturgy.  If Christmas occurs on a weekday, then nonbelievers go to work as usual and believers take the day off for their observances, deducted from their vacation bank.  Officially, the United States is not a Christian nation and so we should not treat Christmas as a national holiday and, consequently, shut down the country.  If citizens really need a collective holiday in December, then let’s go for the Winter Solstice instead.  Such a curative might help us refocus our attention on the essence, not the phony nonsense, of the season.  I readily admit, however, that my proposition will not be popular among most of my students!

Or perhaps we could move our obsessive gift-giving to the Twelfth Night where it belongs traditionally.  That would liberate most people to observe Christmas as a holy day, a reflective day, a gathering day, a day for song and for light as the cold dark winter blankets the landscape.  The date, after all, is not known to be the actual birthday of Jesus and seems instead to have been a contrivance by the early Church to supplant pagan winter festivals.  Still the day stands for its cosmic symbolism of incarnation and fulfillment and has been honored as such for centuries.

Twelfth Night, known as Epiphany, also has a venerable meaning for its Christian observers.  In keeping with ancient religious rites, a liturgical feast begins a new day at sunset so that Twelfth Night (the evening of 5 January) precedes Twelfth Day (6 January).  Epiphany recalls the visitation of the Biblical Magi “from the East” to Bethlehem, celebrating the incarnation of Jesus as the Christ.  Through the millennia, the feast also commemorated other moments in the life of Jesus: all his childhood events, his baptism, and even his supposed miracle at the wedding of Cana in Galilee.  The earliest reference to this feast is attributed to St. Epiphanius, metropolitan of Cyprus, in 361 C.E.  Twelfth Night was and, for some Christian traditions, continues to be a time of merrymaking and gift-giving.  Once again, if folks wish to celebrate Epiphany, then let them take that evening and the next day as vacation times – just like observers do for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Chanukah in the Jewish liturgy.

For the moment, sadly, we must endure this sacrilege of Christmas as merchants and Wall Street define the day for society at-large.  With all its glitter and contrivances, the celebration has become a tacky throw-away Hallmark card that idolizes a 4th-century saint – St. Nikolaos of Myra in present-day Turkey.  When we stop buying into the vulgar consumerism, and recall the deep message of the season, then we may decide to separate the sacred festival of incarnation from its more profane (in the secular or material sense) elements.  During this busy, frenzied time of the year, too often we allow our priorities to become whacky and topsy-turvy.  Let’s reclaim the sacred and throw Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, the elves, and the whole insufferable lot into the recycle bin.  Bah, humbug!