Epiphany

So here we are then, it’s “officially” the last day of Christmas.

Last night was Twelfth Night, traditionally marked by an evening of festive merrymaking. And so it came to pass, as I sat with a cup of Ovaltine watching TV highlight’s of the third day’s play in the final Ashes Test in Sydney followed by Match of the Day, featuring coverage of Newcastle’s 5-0 thrashing of West Ham.

Today, 6th January, is Epiphany which traditionally marks the arrival of the three Magi and the presentation of their gifts to the baby Jesus. As far as I’m aware there’s no actual evidence that this actually happened on January 6th, but there you go. It’s a tradition nevertheless. In fact, I seem to remember that the Magi only appear in one of the four gospels (Matthew) and it doesn’t even specify that there were three of them..

Here in the United Kingdom, January 6th is when the holiday season really finishes, when Christmas trees and decorations come down, and when we’re allowed at last to stop eating Turkey curries. Some years ago I discovered that in other countries Epiphany is actually observed rather differently and is in fact one of the main events of the Christmas period. I only discovered this when I tried to arrange a meeting with Spanish and Italian representatives of an EU Network I was involved with on January 6th, only to be greeted with howls of protest. It actually makes sense, though, as presumably the exchanging of gifts at Christmas is supposed to commemorate the visit of the Magi. Why not, therefore, do it at Epiphany?

All this reminded me of the following (very famous) poem, called The Journey of the Magi , by T.S Eliot. I’m all out of gold, frankenstein and myrrh (whatever that is) – and I’m not a particularly wise man anyway – so I’ll offer this in lieu of a gift.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no imformation, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


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5 Responses to “Epiphany”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    As brilliant as ever. Some say you can see a change from pessimism in The Waste Land to optimism in Four Quartets, as a result of Eliot’s conversion, but I do not find that the Quartets express joy, and any difference between these writings is not one that would have interested me in Christianity. I simply think that Eliot, both before and after his conversion, is a magnificent poet, who is overall modernist and rather gloomy.

    The date of Christmas has been done here recently, so I’ll just add the glorious joke:

    “Daddy, why was there no room at the inn?”
    “Because it was Christmas.”

    I know that this gag was used in an episode of Till Death Us Do Part, but it is probably older.

    The number of magi is presumably inferred on the basis of the three gifts (gold for a king, (frank)incense – not frankenstein! – for a priest, myrrh symbolising death since it was used for anointing bodies prior to burial – all three hinting about the child). But our guide when I visited Israel, a knowledgeable Christian Jew, said that there was an older tradition that the number of magi was in the 20s. (He gave the exact number but I’ve forgotten.)

    Christmas cards in Australia, at least in the 1980s when I lived in Sydney, often featured snow even though it was summer in the southern hemisphere and sweltering. Such is the strength of cultural tradition. Current events in Sydney amply repay following for English cricket supporters…

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      As for the cricket, the news this morning was even better! England all out for 644 including, for the first time in Test history, century partnerships for the 6th, 7th and 8th wickets in the same innings. Australia 213 for 7 in reply, needing another 152 to make England bat again. Three wickets needed, and a whole day to get them…

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Yes, I spent Christmas in Perth (Australia, not the one in Scotland) in 1986 and was amazed their Christmas cards mainly featured snow scenes and red-breasted robins.

      Anton – can you link me back to the discussion of when/why Christmas is now celebrated on the 25th of December. I read when I was preparing for my Star of Bethlehem radio thing that it was Pope Liberius that set it at this date, in the year 354 or something.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Phillip – I am aware that the “standard” explanation of the timing of Xmas is that the early Christian church highjacked an already popular pagan festival. This is the explanation I usually give. I was just curious whether Anton, or anyone else, knew of another, possibly religious, explanation.

      On a related topic, why does the Church calculate Easter Sunday in the way it does? As it is linked to the phase of the Moon, does this imply that the phase of the Moon is somehow important in the Crucifix story? This year Easter is about as late as it possibly can be (and in 2007 it was about as early as it possibly can be). I was explaining to my students yesterday how we calculate the date of Easter Sunday. Why is its date tied into the Moon, whereas other Christian festivals are not?

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by followmytweet, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Epiphany: http://wp.me/pko9D-2fF […]

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