Why do we “celebrate” Christmas so spectacularly and ignore its closing act, Epiphany? How did Christmas come to overshadow Epiphany so completely? Well of course we know the answer to this question: crass commercial consumerism, beginning in the Victorian era. But before that, it was all about Epiphany, one of the earliest Christian feast days. Consider this beautiful painting by Hieronymus Bosch of the Adoration of the Magi, one of thousands of Renaissance paintings depicting this moment when the world, represented by the Three Magi/Kings/Wise Men, came to view the Christ child in his humble birthplace. Here we see nothing less than the manifestation of God in the form of human flesh through his Son, Jesus Christ, before the Kings and the world. It’s a really big moment, and one that medieval and early modern Christians wanted to think about, hear about, and see time and time again. I like this particular painting not only for its aesthetic qualities but also the familiarity and intimacy of its setting: Italian Renaissance painters like Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio made this moment even more familiar and intimate by painting themselves and their patrons right into the scene!
Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475, Uffizi Gallery (with Botticelli in the right lower calendar and all of the Medici clan present); Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1485-88, Spedale degli Innocenti (with Domenico facing us in the midst of his patrons, on left).
It’s quite possible that the underestimation of Epiphany is apparent only from my western (American) Protestant perspective, but apart from its theological importance, there are many customs and traditions associated with Epiphany and Twelfth Night, its more secular incarnation, that would seem to lend this holiday towards more popular celebration (or exploitation): elaborate feasting, including a variety of Kings’ Cakes, containing beans, slips of paper, or Baby Jesus charms, wassailing, frolicking, dancing, gift-giving, marking homes with blessed chalk. Many of these Twelfth Night activities have been appropriated by Christmas in the modern era, especially here in the United States, where Santa Claus seems to have vanquished St. Nicholas, the Three Kings, and even the Italian “Christmas Witch”, la Befana, who delivers presents (or coal) to children on Epiphany Eve rather than December 24. Although given her identity rather than her occupation, I suppose it is only a matter of time before she finds her way to the Witch City.
Twelfth Night Feast by Jan Havicksz. Steen, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Epiphany. Illustration from Holy Seasons of the Church by E Beatrice Coles (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1888); a Spanish Epiphany custom illustrated in Le Petite Journal, 1914; the famous “Befana Regatta” held every January 6 in Venice.