The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
Earlier this week I ran into a coworker at the copy machine and we exchanged New Year's and Christmas greetings. She was telling me about her family's practice of gift giving, and how they continue exchanging small, meaningful gifts throughout the season, leading to a 12th night celebration on Epiphany. Before I could stop myself I blurted out, "Actually, 12th night is on Thursday." Great I thought to myself, now you're mansplaining about Christmas, Rob. Shut up! It was already done, and we were off to the races discussing this all important issue. She, like many people in these parts, celebrates Jan. 6, The Epiphany, as "Twelfth Night," and the end of the Christmas season.
Maybe you do this, too. But, you've been lied to . . . sort of. The twelfth day of Christmas is Jan. 5, making the evening of Jan. 5 the twelfth night. For reals! Count the days from Christmas Day to today . . . I'll wait . . . .
Twelfth Night, for South Louisianans, is also the day to celebrate the beginning of Carnival Season, as you well know. And many people do celebrate Twelfth Night on the 6th. This, of course, is not a hill any of us need to die on, including me. There is debate about this, and you can read a little more about why here. It all comes down to whether you start counting the first day of the season as Christmas Day or on Dec. 26. In the Anglican tradition we count Dec. 25 as day one.
But wait . . . there's more!
Yes, Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi to visit the Holy Family. Yes, that's still part of the Christmas story. Technically, though, Epiphany is its own day and it's not part of the Christmas season. It's followed by the Season after the Epiphany.
But wait! There's more!
The day after Epiphany, Jan. 7, is actually Christmas Day for many Orthodox Christians! That has to do with differences in the Gregorian and Julian calendars. You can read more about that here. Our Greek Orthodox neighbors follow a revised version of the Julian calendar, so they share Christmas celebrations with us Western Christians. But our Russian Orthodox neighbors, for example, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.
What does all this mean?
It means that if you still have your Christmas tree up today, you can now take it down without shame or fear. Christmas is finally over--at least for many of us. Or, if you just love having those decorations up, you can leave them so you can keep observing Christmas with those Orthodox neighbors. And here's the really crazy thing. Some Christians actually keep Christmas until Feb. 2! Yep. Feb. 2 is the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (see Luke 2:22-38). The Presentation is also known as Candlemas (the candle mass), and is a traditional time for blessing candles used in worship. Why observe for so long? Well, partially it's because that feast continues commemorating the story of the Holy Family and the infant Jesus, but also count the days from Dec. 25 - Feb. 2. It's 40 days, like some other seasons you might know! The Bible and the Church love increments of 40.
Mardi Gras as a spiritual discipline
Yeah, you can keep Christmasing if you want. Or, just go ahead and take down those decorations, maybe leave the tree up and turn it into a Mardi Gras tree. Then, take the time to join in the life of our local community and celebrate. Celebrate the joy of a new year. Celebrate life. Celebrate our city. Whatever works for you--just consider that celebration as a sign of gratitude to God. In his classic book on spiritual practices, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster names celebration as a spiritual discipline. He quotes St. Augustine, who said,
"The Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot."
Foster writes, "Of all people, [Christians] should be the most free, alive, interesting. Celebration adds a note of gaiety, festivity, hilarity to our lives. After all, Jesus rejoiced so fully in life that he was accused of being a winebibber and a glutton. Many of us lead such sour lives that we cannot possibly be accused of such things" (p. 196).
Without naming Mardi Gras specifically, he goes on to recommend celebrating the feasts of our community. He writes, "In the Middle Ages there was a holiday known as the Feast of Fools. It was a time when all 'sacred cows' of the day could be safely laughed at and mocked. Minor clerics mimicked and ridiculed their superiors. Political leaders were lampooned. We can do that without the excessive debauchery [he's looking at us, New Orleans] that often accompanied those festivities, but we do need occasions when we laugh at ourselves. Instead of chafing under the social customs of our day, we might do well to find ways to laugh at them" (p. 200).
All this is to say . . .
CELEBRATE. Whether you're celebrating Christmas, or Twelfth Night, or Thirteenth Night as Twelfth Night, or Mardi Gras, it's good to celebrate. It's good to live joyfully, for as Foster says, "Joy makes us strong." And that's no lie.