These Three Kings keep Christmas custom alive

About 30 children gathered Saturday afternoon to preserve a cultural tradition > At Los Flamboyanes, an apartment complex along La Avenida in Rochester, they shared a meal, candy and a story about El Dνa de los Reyes, Three Kings Day.

The day celebrates the arrival of the three wise men who followed a bright star to Bethlehem and brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. Three Kings Day, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, falls on January 6 and marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The holiday is typically celebrated in Puerto Rico, Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, explained Latinas Unidas Chairwoman Daisy Rivera Algarin. For eight years, Latinas Unidas and other groups have sponsored the community celebration to keep the tradition alive among Hispanic families in the Rochester area.

“It’s important that we continue to celebrate what makes us who we are,” Rivera Algarin said. The local celebration is an opportunity to expose children to the cultural event and in “passing our heritage and culture along to our children.”

That goal is not lost on Linmarie Serrano of Rochester. On Friday night, Linmarie, said she placed a small box holding grass, for the Kings’ camels to eat, under the Christmas tree. By the time she woke Saturday morning, the box had been replaced with several Bratz dolls. Hours after her family’s celebration, Linmarie attended the community event.

Aurora Ramos, of Rochester said she likes the holiday “because it means we get to celebrate, get and give gifts.” This year, she said, she made her mother a card and a picture. “It makes you feel good when you do something for someone else,” she said. “Plus it’s neat to learn about your culture.”

As Aurora’s mother, Annette Ramos, read a story about the holiday, three wise men, portrayed by Julio Vazquez, the city’s commissioner of community development; Sgt. Carlos Garcia of the Rochester Police Department and Sen. Joseph Robach, R-Greece, entered the room carrying gifts of their own. Moments later, the men, wearing capes and crowns, distributed bags filled with candy. “It’s something we celebrate every year,” said Felix Rivera of Rochester. “The day is special because we spend it with friends and family.”

Greece celebrates Epiphany with traditional ‘blessing of the waters’ ceremonies

Greece celebrated the religious holiday of Epiphany on Saturday with the traditional “blessing of the waters” ceremony at the country’s countless ports, harbours, lakes and reservoirs, with the nation’s political leadership also on hand at Church masses and at the water’s side.

The most prominent service was again celebrated at the port of Piraeus’ Metropolitan Cathedral and seafront, with Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos officiating at the service, attended by President of the Republic Karolos Papoulias, Defence Minister Evangelos Meimarakis, who represented the Government, main opposition PASOK leader George Papandreou, former premier Costas Simitis and dozens of other government officials, MPs and local government office-holders. Most political leaders on hand expressed their best wishes for 2007.

On his part, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis attended Epiphany services near his home in the east Attica coastal town of Rafina, where he expressed his best seasons for the New Year, while emphasising the need for close ties between parents and children.

His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos officiated at a similar service in Constantinople [today’s Istanbul], the venerable Patriarchate’s seat.

At Armenian Churches, a distinct observance today

Today the Armenian Church, one of the most ancient branches of Christianity, celebrates the birth of Jesus. One wonders, admittedly a bit fancifully, if there is a lesson in the Armenian practice for the many Christians who desperately wish that the religious meaning of Jesus’ birth could be rescued from angry culture wars and commercial frenzy.

For the Armenian Church, today’s holy day is the Feast of the Theophany. Other Christians will also be celebrating Theophany as a major religious feast today or, in some of the Western churches, where the day is commonly known as Epiphany, tomorrow. But over the centuries the focus of the day has come to differ within the different strands of Christianity.

What is common to all of them in its celebration is captured in the derivation of the feast’s name from Greek, combining “theos” or “god” with “phainein” meaning “to show forth”. Thus “Theophany” means “divine manifestation”. [“Epiphany” is simply “manifestation”].

In the East, the Orthodox churches, which do not include the Armenian, place their focus on the manifestation of Jesus as God’s son when, as related in three of the four Gospels, he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. In the West, the focus has come to be the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles symbolized by the visit of the gift-bearing Magi.

In the early centuries of Christianity, the many manifestations of Jesus, from the Annunciation to Mary right through his first miracle, at the wedding feast in Cana, and of course including his birth, were celebrated together, at least in some parts of the East, and especially on January 6. In the absence of any scriptural basis for precisely dating these events, that day emerged for symbolic reasons, probably related to the Egyptian calendar that placed the winter solstice at this time.

In the fourth century, however, the birth of Jesus was increasingly celebrated separately on December 25, first in Rome and later in the East. Again, most scholars attribute this to a Christian effort either to appropriate or to supplant the religious themes of the imperial Roman cult of the sun, which was in turn related to the dating of the solstice by the Roman, or Julian, calendar.

Only the Armenians, who were not part of the Roman Empire and therefore not faced with a competing imperial cult, never accepted December 25 or in fact any separate date for celebrating Jesus’ birth.

Instead, the Armenian Church maintained in the one Feast of Theophany the linkage of Jesus’ birth, which will be emphasized in today’s services, and his baptism, to be emphasized tomorrow, when a cross will be immersed in water. Indeed, the liturgy retains echoes of the whole series of “theophanies,” or divine manifestations.

Please Note > The story of dates for celebrating Jesus’ birth is further confused by the fact that some parts of Eastern Orthodox Christianity still follow the Julian calendar in their Church life rather than the 16th-century reformed Gregorian calendar. By the Julian calendar, December 25 falls on the modern calendar’s January 7 and its Eve on January 6, while Theophany comes 12 days later, on the modern January 19. In any event, these Orthodox Churches celebrate the two feasts, marking birth and baptism, on separate days.

Do Armenian Christians in the United States celebrate the December 25 holiday with gifts, Christmas trees and all the rest? Yes, they do, especially those here for generations, said the Very Rev. Vahan Hovhanessian, pastor of Holy Martyrs Armenian Church in Bayside, Queens, although there is also a custom, carried over from the Middle East, of exchanging gifts on New Year’s Eve.

But Armenians maintain a clear mental distinction between the American culture’s Christmas, Father Vahan said, and the Armenian Church’s religious celebration of Christ’s birth on Theophany. Armenians churches will be packed today, he said, people will be lined up on the sidewalk outside Holy Martyrs.

Other Christian leaders may observe this distinction with a degree of envy. Many say that they feel trapped and wearied not only by the commercialization of Christmas but also by the culture warriors who are eager to embrace that commercialization in a strangely conceived campaign to keep the culture Christian or, as Stephen Colbert might say, “Christianish.”

“Instead of putting the Christ back in Christmas, maybe we should just take him out,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer before Christmas. “In the battle between the Christians and the marketers,” he wrote, “the marketers have won, decisively.”

Father Martin’s “modest proposal” was to “give Christmas to the corporations” and find a new date for a “New Christmas”, “a nice, quiet, shopping-free, religiously grounded holiday.” His suggestion? “Around, say, June,” when Flag Day would be its only serious competition.

But maybe the Armenian celebration of Theophany is more promising. Tied as the feast is to the whole panoply of what Christians hold as divine manifestations, it might prove easier to keep the “theos” in Theophany than to keep Christ in Christmas.

Not that anyone should ever underestimate the power of the marketers. How long would it be, after all, before advertisements began appearing on January 7: “Only 364 shopping days till Theophany”?

Illuminating the ancient feast of Epiphany

Christian traditions mark Magi’s visit, burning of greens, baptism of Jesus.

According to the traditional Christian calendar, today marks “Twelfth Night,” the last day of the 12 days of Christmas. Not many people still celebrate with 12 days of gift-giving from December 25 to January 5, as in the famous Christmas carol. But many churches do observe the ancient feast of Epiphany on January 6, a holiday associated in Western churches with the coming of the Magi to honor the infant Jesus.

“The story of the wise men will be done this Sunday in Sunday school,” said the Rev. Bill King, deputy to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. “Many churches are leaving the creche up through this Sunday.” Tonight’s the church-sanctioned time to take down Christmas decorations, King said.

“Twelfth Night was the burning of the greens; you took the Christmas wreaths down and burned them,” he said. “In the old English tradition you’d have a bonfire on Twelfth Night.”

While Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and other Western churches celebrate the coming of the Magi to adore Jesus, the Eastern Orthodox church commemorates the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany. Icons representing the baptism of Jesus are on display, while the feast is called Theophania [in Greek].

Tonight is the Eve of Epiphany. “That’s the completion of the 12 days of Christmas,” said the Rev. Alexander Fecanin, pastor of St. Symeon Orthodox Church. “Traditionally, the 12 days of Christmas is not the 12 days before Christmas, it’s the 12 days following. We’re still singing carols.” Western churches also remember the baptism of Jesus during Epiphany and have more baptisms at that time. This Sunday will be popular for baptisms, King said.

On Saturday, Orthodox churches will have blessing-of-the-water services to celebrate the baptism of Jesus.

“Waters are blessed and people drink of the water,” said the Rev. Paul Costopoulos, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Holy Trinity-Holy Cross, which will bless waters during its 8:30 a.m. service Saturday. “During the Epiphany season, throughout January, the priest visits the homes of parishioners and blesses homes with the holy water.”

In some Episcopal churches, youth dress up for Epiphany as kings and symbolically bring forth the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, gold, frankincense and myrrh. “In our home, the creche stays up until 12th night,” King said.

On Sunday, Orthodox will also celebrate the annual feast day of John the Baptist. “John the Baptist was a major player in Epiphany,” Costopoulos said. “He was the forerunner chosen by God to baptize Jesus.”

At St. Symeon Orthodox church, the 6:30 p.m. service tonight and the Saturday 10 a.m. service will include the blessing of water. “We bless the water by placing the cross in the water,” Fecanin said. “It’s the image of Christ entering the water.”

During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Christmas celebrations in America took place sporadically between December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, and January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. The earlier onset of U.S. Christmas celebrations and decorations in the modern commercial era may create a sense of anxiety for the holiday to be over. After a Christmas shopping season that for many Americans begins right after Thanksgiving, people tire of the holiday season and are ready to move on.

“Epiphany is a major feast day according to the teachings of the church,” Costopoulos said. “It’s gotten out of kilter because of the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. It’s become so overwhelming, the focus is on that.”

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Brookside observes January 7 as Christmas, following the Russian tradition. In Bethlehem, celebrations of the birth of Jesus extend to the end of January. Around the world, Christmas is celebrated as late as January 27 in the Coptic Church of Egypt. “There are different traditions, and Bethlehem picks up on each one of them,” King said.

“Epiphany was one of the earliest Christian feast days,” King said. “It celebrated the manifestation of the Christ, in Jesus, the divinity of Christ. God entering into humanity. It was god in our midst, god revealed through Jesus. That’s Epiphany, an awakening, an understanding of something different. It was only later that Christmas was chosen as December 25.”

In early church tradition, Epiphany celebrated the Nativity and the appearance of Christ at the River Jordan for baptism. Churches usually celebrate Epiphany on January 6 or the Sunday between January 2-8. The Feast of Epiphany begins a season that continues until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter.

The visit of the Magi is connected to Christmas, although if the visit is historical, the Magi would likely have arrived long after the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew says that when the Magi visited Herod and told him of the birth of a new King, Herod responded by ordering the slaughter of male children under 2 years old, which would suggest a long lapse of time between the appearance of the star and the arrival of the Magi.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. “The job of the church is to teach the sacred truths behind the story,” King said. “That’s our job.”

Treats of the Epiphany > Recipes I

Three Kings Day marks the end of the Christmas season and gives us one more chance to celebrate with delicious foods from diverse cultures.

Twelfth Night dinner, Feast of the Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings or Three Kings Day, whatever you choose to call it, the celebration officially marks the end of the holidays.

These festivities, which cross many ethnic lines, recall the visit of the three wise men, or Magi, at Christ’s birth. For home cooks, it’s a time to revel in a culinary diversity with treasured dishes and traditions.

Three Kings Day is observed in Spanish-speaking countries as well as in France, Germany, Austria, Italy and England. Each country has its own tradition for observances, but most people celebrate with family, church and community gatherings.

Western Christians celebrate the Epiphany, when the three wise men visited baby Jesus, on January 6, 12 days after Christmas. In Spanish-speaking cultures, the holiday is called Three Kings Day, and it is also known as Twelfth Night.

On this evening, Puerto Rican children often leave grass under their beds for the kings’ camels. While the kids sleep, parents replace the grass with toys. The practice comes from the story about the wise men bringing treasures to the stable where Jesus was born.

In Europe, as far back as the 4th century, a King’s Day cake of some kind was part of the celebration. In 18th-century France, the cake of choice was a flaky pastry, gateau des Rois (cake of kings), filled with almond pastry cream. Today the most popular version, even in France, is a variation on brioche, a sweet dough embellished in whichever way the baker sees fit.

In Mexico, it is a time for giving presents to children and for having a merienda, or snack, of rosca de reyes, a sweet yeast bread made in the form of a ring. Hot chocolate is a favorite accompaniment.

Hidden in the dough is a token. The person who finds it has to give a party on Candelaria, or Candlemass, on February 2, a religious celebration of hope and light.

In Greek cookery, a sweetened, braided loaf is served during the Christmas season leading up to Epiphany, which is called “Christopsomo” or “Christ’s Bread”. But there is no token tucked inside the dough. A coin is inserted into the “Vasilopita” or “Saint Basil’s Cake” which is served on New Year’s Eve. Instead, the Christmas bread echoes northern Europe’s traditional fruit-studded cake.

Because Twelfth Night concludes the Christmas holidays, people traditionally have marked it with large gatherings and feasts to close the season. Today’s recipes will get you started on that menu.

And don’t take off those party shoes so quickly, Twelfth Night is also the official start of the Mardi Gras Season or the Carnival Season!

The journey of the three kings > in english and spanish text

The journey of the three Kings > Every January 6, Catholics and people of other faiths observe the Feast of the Epiphany, a religious day that marks the visit of the three Kings to Jesus Christ.

According to biblical accounts, three Kings, or Wise Men who may have been astrologers, traveled from distant lands, following a star that led them to the Christ child. The kings rode on camels and carried gifts to honor Jesus.

The Epiphany celebrates that Jesus was revealed as not only the King of the Jews but as the Savior of all people. The wisemen recognized this with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gold represented Jesus’ Royal lineage, while frankincense reflected his divinity and myrrh symbolized his sacrifice through death.

The wisemen, Baltasar, Gaspar and Melchior, came from different parts of the East. In the visual arts, the wisemen are depicted with dark to light complexions, reflecting the diversity of the world.

For Latinos and others, the Epiphany, known as Three Kings Day, also has cultural significance. The evening before Three Kings Day, children leave grass and water for the camels. In the morning, they find gifts from the magi, another term for the wisemen. In addition to gift exchanges, some families also enjoy the traditional rosca de reyes, a warm bread that is shared and that has a hidden plastic figurine representing the baby Jesus.

While the Epiphany generally closes the Christmas season, Puerto Ricans continue to honor the Magi Saints with eight feast days known as Octavitas. In the Dominican Republic, the season also includes a visit from la Vieja Belen, who brings gifts to poor children on January 21.

The Three Kings traveled with great hope. Their journey, wisdom and diversity remind us of the blessings we can envision and embrace.

El viaje de los Tres Reyes Magos > Cada 6 de enero, católicos y personas de otras denominaciones religiosas observan la Fiesta de la Epifanía, un día religioso que marca la visita de los tres reyes a Jesús Cristo. De acuerdo con el relato bíblico, tres reyes, u hombres sabios quienes pueden haber sido astrólogos, viajaron desde lejanas tierras, siguiendo una estrella que los llevó hasta el niño Jesús. Los reyes cabalgaban en camellos y llevaban regalos para honrar a Jesús.

La Epifanía celebra que Jesús fue revelado no sólo como el rey de los judíos, sino como el salvador de toda la gente. Los sabios reconocieron esto con sus regalos de oro, incienso y mirra. El oro representó el linaje real de Jesús, mientras el incienso reflejó su divinidad y la mirra su sacrificio a través de la muerte.

Los sabios, Baltasar, Gaspar y Melchor, procedían de diferentes partes del Oriente. En las artes visuales, los sabios son presentados con complexiones de clara a oscura, reflejando la diversidad del mundo.

Para los latinos y otros, la Epifanía, conocida como Día de los Tres Reyes, también tiene significación cultural. La noche antes del Día de los Tres Reyes, niños dejan hierba y agua para los camellos. En la mañana, ellos encuentran regalos de los magos, otro término para los sabios. En adición al intercambio de regalos, algunas familias también disfrutan la tradicional rosca de reyes, un pan caliente que se comparte y que tiene figurines plásticos representando a niño Jesús.

Mientras la Epifanía por lo general cierra la estación navideña, los puertorriqueños continúan honrando a los Santos Magos con ocho días de fiestas conocidas como octavitas. En República Dominicana, la temporada también incluye una visita de la Vieja Belén, que trae regalos a los niños pobres el 21 de enero.

Los Tres Reyes viajaron con gran esperanza. Su travesía, sabiduría y diversidad nos recuerda las bendiciones que podemos vislumbrar y abrazar.

Pagan roots run deep beneath our Christmas rituals

Cakes and onion skins > folk customs during the preparation for Christmas.

We are now deep into Advent, a special time that takes its name from the Latin ad-venio, “to come to.” It is a period of expectant waiting for Christmas, which begins with the Sunday nearest to the November 30 Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle, and embraces four Sundays. During this time, the faithful prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love and, in the western churches, Advent marks the start of the ecclesiastical year.

It is not clear exactly when the celebration of Advent was first introduced into the Church, but some theories suggest it is related to the feast of the winter solstice that was dear to our pagan ancestors. This could explain why several strange folk customs still survive in this period of preparation for Christmas, one such being Luca’s Day, a popular festival held on December 13, and a remnant from our sun-worshipping past.

In fact, all the religious feasts around the winter solstice seem to combine elements of the sacred and “profane”, even Christmas itself. As found in texts from the year 1038, the late Old English term for Christmas was Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, but the Hungarian name for the same festival seems to have very different roots. Linguists agree that Karácsony comes from the Slavic word korcun, which means “passage” and refers to the passing of the winter solstice, and the beginning of a new cycle.

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of what we know as the Christian Church, however. The first theologians ridiculed the feast: in the Scriptures it is written that only sinners, but not Saints, celebrate their birthdays. The very first evidence of the feast comes from Egypt in about 200 AD, and placed Christ’s birthday on the equivalent of May 20 in the 28th year of the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus.

Only from the fourth century on did Western calendars make December 25 Christ’s birthday, upon an order of Pope Julius I, perhaps in the hope of imbuing the long-held pagan rituals of winter solstice with Christian meaning.

The Armenian Christian rite still ignores the December festival, for Armenians the Lord’s birthday is on January 6, when we celebrate Epiphany, and some Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on January 7, which corresponds to December 25 in the old Julian calendar. But is our December 25 Christmas celebration really a “baptism” of an archaic pagan feast?

Ancient midwinter festivals may well have guided the choice of the December date: in the late Roman Empire, people marked Natalis Invicti or Sol Invuctus (“the Unconquered Sun”) at the winter solstice, to celebrate the fact that the darkest days were over and the hours of sunlight were again increasing.

Natalis Invicti, which was celebrated on December 25, has a strong claim to be the direct ancestor of our Christmas Day, and was an important event for Roman adherents of the popular cult of Mithras (who, some scholars note, bears similarities to the figure of Christ). For Romans, December 17 also marked the start of the great Saturnalia festival, commemorating the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn.

The winter solstice, then, was an important moment in ancient culture – the New Year, and the new life cycle, began here, and besides the Natalis Invicti of Mithraism and the Roman Saturnalias, we should mention the Yule feast celebrated at this time by Norse and German pagans.

Popular beliefs can never correspond exactly to the calendars of official religion, but it is surely not by chance that the most important pagan rituals coincide with the time that the birth of the Lord is drawing near.

The most important evidence of these relics from the old sun-worshipping religions is to be found nowadays in Luca’s Day. Celebrated in many cultures all over the world, Luca’s Day in Hungary is known as the most important feast of the witches, after Saint George’s Day.

It cannot be accidental the Church set the Day of St Lucia, or St Lucy, on December 13. Before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, it fell on December 21, the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Consequently, that night was the longest of the year, when evil spirits and witches could do their worst. And it can also surely be no accident that the name itself, Lucia, Luca, Lucy, has its roots in lux, the Latin word for “light”.

St Lucia was a virgin martyr who, according to one legend, withstood such extremes of torture that she was suspected of being a witch, and so was ultimately burnt to death, but perished only after completing a final prayer.

HUNGARIAN FOLK CUSTOM > In Hungarian folk custom, Luca’s Day is still a time for guessing the future by various methods, and performing rituals to gain good luck. Women’s work is forbidden on Luca’s Day, except for acts aimed at assuring fertility and richness the following year, or in the next cycle, as the old pagans had it.

There is also a tradition of starting to build a so-called Luca’s Chair on December 13, and to add a little bit each day so that it is ready in exactly 12 days, on December 25. At Christmas midnight mass, the person who sits on the chair can supposedly see through disguises and reveal the witches that are hiding in the community. Besides revealing witches, the  tradition warns who might “steal” the cow’s milk, the chicken’s eggs, or put a spell on people, it is very common on Luca’s Day to start trying to guess the identity of one’s future husband. Girls make 12 cakes, with a man’s name in each, and they eat one every day, their future husband’s name will be the one contained in the last remaining cake.

Luca’s Day symbolizes the rebirth of nature: the partial end of the old world, and the beginning of the new. Very similar to the old pagan solar rituals, it is a feast that holds the promise of new life. The 12 days from Luca’s Day to Christmas can even be seen as a micro-year: from the events of these days, Hungarians forecast how the following year’s months will be.

Among the Hungarians of Transylvania, a peculiar method of weather divination is still popular. They lay out 12 layers of onion, corresponding to the months of the year to come, and they put salt on each piece. If the salt dissolves, that corresponding month will be wet, tradition says. It is just another ancient ritual that adds to the richness of this strange and special time.

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