Christmas season winds down for some, starts for others

Posted On January 6, 2007

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While most people are slowly putting away their holiday ornaments this week, some are still waiting for Christmas Eve.

Christmas comes Sunday, January 7, for the Serbian Orthodox Church. In North County, worshipers will gather at St. Petka Serbian Orthodox Church in San Marcos for a Christmas celebration that day, as the church follows the Julian calendar.

About 500 Serbian and FYROM (Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia) members of the church will gather Saturday night to celebrate Christmas Eve. During the service, parishioners traditionally kiss the icon, a picture of the Nativity, and each member is given a branch of a yule log. The 6-foot oak log then is taken outside and burned, a tradition said to bring good luck for the new year.
Church members did not, however, have to wait to open presents. Traditionally, children give presents to their mothers on the first Sunday of December and to their fathers on the second Sunday. Finally, children receive presents from their parents on the third Sunday.

Most Christian churches follow the western Gregorian calendar and will recognize something else this weekend: Epiphany.

Depending on which tradition is followed, Epiphany is the day the Magi, or Wise Men, arrived in Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus, or it is the day Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan. Epiphany is observed on different days by different churches. The Serbian Orthodox Church celebrates Epiphany on January 19.

More consistent is the definition of “epiphany,” which is derived from the Greek word that means “to make known” or “to reveal.” In this case, it refers to the revelation of God in human form to mankind or simply the revelation of Jesus to the Magi. January 6 is not considered a holy day unless it is on a Sunday, and in the United States, Epiphany usually is celebrated on the Sunday that falls between January 2 and January 8.

In a tradition observed by Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, many people will observe Epiphany this Sunday by writing “CMB,” the initials of the three kings (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar), and “2007” in chalk on their front doors.

“We’re sending everyone home with a chalk blessing,” said the Rev. Meg Decker of Trinity Episcopal Church in Escondido. “That’s a tradition in the Episcopal Church. You’re suppose to go home, bless your house and take down your Christmas decorations.”

Decker said children at church that day will sing “What Gifts Do I Bring,” and there will be an appearance by characters dressed as the three kings.

By any account, Epiphany does not rival Christmas or Easter as a Christian celebration. Churches that do not follow liturgical calendars may not recognize Epiphany at all, and even some denominations that do follow the calendar may make very little reference to the day.

At Community Lutheran Church in Oceanside, the Rev. Tim Jones said services are usually a blend of contemporary and traditional, and Epiphany would not be a major element at church this Sunday.

“Many Lutheran churches have gotten away from celebrating church events like that,” he said about changes in the denomination during the past 50 years. Jones said Community Lutheran might recognize Epiphany with a prayer or a bulletin.

“Different churches have different populations,” he said. “Although we have a core of members raised Lutherans, we have a number who were not. A lot of people have no clue what Epiphany or Advent is.”

Still, Jones does see value in recognizing Epiphany and other such dates as a way of tying the church to its history and uniting a community of believers. “It’s impressive to think you’re doing something that’s been done hundreds and hundreds of years,” he said about traditional Christian ceremonies. “It’s a means of celebrating the fact that we are part of that family.”

Jones said it would be helpful for the church to find a way of keeping traditional celebrations alive, and he regrets seeing contemporary Christian churches that have no observations of historical events.

“I think we would do ourselves a favor by integrating the two,” he said about traditional ceremonies and contemporary messages. “The things that get lost, tragically, are all those things that are tied to the life of Christ, and that’s the reason we’re here.”

Since we celebrate our own birthdays, anniversaries and baptisms, Jones said it would be appropriate to celebrate Jesus’ birth as well.

“When you get to a particular season in the Christian church calendar, they are all for the purpose of edifying the body of the church and Jesus himself, and if we are to be followers of him, we need to know him better.”

The eve of Epiphany, January 5, also has been celebrated as the 12th night, the culmination of the 12 days of Christmas that begin Christmas Day. The celebration is believed to have started in the Middle Ages and was recognized in early American colonies with festivities that included a King Cake, a tradition that continues in New Orleans and other U.S. cities.

In Latino cultures and in some places in Europe, January 6 is known as Three Kings’ Day, or El Dia de Los Tres Reyes. Like the King Cake of 12th Night, the Latino celebration has its own sweet bread, the rosca de reyes, topped with candied figs, oranges, lemons, cherries and citron, and baked in an oval or round shape to symbolize a crown. The cake contains a figurine of baby Jesus, and tradition holds that whoever gets the figurine must host a fiesta to celebrate Candlemas Day, Dia de la Candelaria, on Febbuary 2.

At St. John of Damascus, a Russian Orthodox church in Poway, the Epiphany is celebrated each year at sundown on January 5. Services include a Great Blessing of the Water, with worshippers taking the water home to drink or sprinkle around the house.

In the Greek Orthodox Church, Epiphany is January 6 and is called the Feast of the Holy Theophany, or the manifestations of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism.

At one time, Jesus’ birth, his baptism and the arrival of the Magi were all celebrated on Epiphany. His birthday and Epiphany became separate holidays when church leaders recognized December 25 as Christmas in the 4th century.

St. Petka’s Serbian Orthodox Church, 1854 Knob Hill Road, San Marcos. Call (760) 743-2178.

St. John of Damascus Russian Orthodox Church, 16903 Espola Road, Poway. Call (858) 485-8433.