As slaves to Mammon our celebrations are frequently curtailed. In agricultural culture, winter was a time when fields couldn’t be cultivated (at least in northern climes) and thus the twelve days of Christmas could be relaxed without much consequence. The history of this holiday complex is fascinating, and while many of us have been back to work for a few days already, today, Epiphany, is the “official” end of the season. Twelfth Night, in some traditions yesterday and in others today, was a day of celebration, the twelfth day of Christmas. Ancient pre-Christmas holidays such as Saturnalia lasted several days. Today’s business world frequently gives a Scrooge-like single day off and many of us spend our hard-earned vacation days to fill out the week that is inevitably slow at work otherwise.
In Christianity, until recent times, Epiphany was a bigger holiday than Christmas. Of the two it was the original day for gift-giving, That makes sense in the commemoration of the visit of the magi that Epiphany represents. They were the first givers of Christmas gifts. Since Jesus was Jewish the idea of a manifestation, or epiphany, to the gentiles became an important marker. Magi are styled as Zoroastrians from Persia. The story occurs only in the gospel of Matthew and clearly wasn’t intended to coincide with the arrival of shepherds and angels. As the Epiphany story grew to include Christmas it also encompassed many of the shadowy events of Jesus’ early years. His questioning of the teachers in the temple was a kind of epiphany, as was his baptism. All these things came together during a fallow time and were sufficient reason to take it easy for twelve days between the end of December and the beginning of January.
Some of our employers have expressed surprise that things continue to run fairly smoothly with workers reporting remotely. These same people also seem surprised that people come back from several days off refreshed. I suspect that they are also astonished at how well their computers work after being rebooted. Time off is sacred time. Whether we dress it up with elaborate stories of kings, wise men, sages, or magicians traveling great distances to see a baby in a foreign nation or whether we make it the day when one cousin baptized another, Epiphany grew into a major feast in medieval times. Today it’s just another work day. And with it the end of another holiday season will need to last us until near the end of yet another year.