Today is the 6th January and from my time in Sunday school all those years ago I can remember it as the day (twelve after Christmas) when the three Wise Men or Magi were celebrated as bringing their gifts to the Christ Child. It was also the day by which, I seem to remember, all the Christmas decorations had to be taken down for fear of a year of bad luck. Mind you the latter might have had more to do with a maternal desire to get life back to a non-tinsel normality than any ancient divine retribution for stray baubles or lingering trees.
It wasn’t until I was a bit older and had started to listen to the stories of the Gaeltacht or to those I heard as I did a bit of travelling that I discovered that the 6th of January had and has a much wider significance. I was reminded by this when watching the Channel Four Great British Bake-off Festive television special over the holidays when the contestants were challenged with making a “galette des rois.” I won’t put any spoilers out there but the galette is a French cake for and eaten on Epiphany right across western Europe. With links to the pre-Christian Saturnalia festival the cake contained a “fève” which was a lucky charm, usually a bean, and which was hidden in the round golden cake to be a reminder of the sun bringing its light back into the darkness of winter.
There are other customs around this time of year. In Ireland there is Handsel Monday which was celebrated on the first Monday of the New Year and was a day on which children would visit neighbours and relatives to ask for a ‘handsel’ – a small gift of money. It was bad luck to refuse a child this gift.
In Skye in the childhood of my grandmother, though I don’t remember her directly talking of this, there was a much older tradition which associated Epiphany as being the ‘Little Christmas’ or Là Challuinn and Nollaig Bheag in Gaelic. Indeed, the tradition of celebrating the coming of the Christ-child on the 6th January (as is still the case today in the Orthodox Christian tradition and those who follow the Julian calendar) is one that survived for many generations in the north west of Scotland.
The characteristic of the 6th January ‘Christmas’ or Epiphany seems to have been very different and some of this is still seen in Ireland where it is sometimes called ‘Women’s Christmas’, particularly in Cork and Kerry. The day takes this name from the tradition of men taking on the household duties for the day. In traditional rural and agricultural communities there were few days where women were not involved in working, doing household activities, the acts of weaning, child-rearing and of caring for family. This was one day when the role of women was valued and the men took over the caring, cooking, and cleaning. This allowed women to go out and meet with friends and to enjoy themselves. It was their Christmas!
In parts of Irish spirituality this day became a symbol of the intrinsic value that should be given to women and even more so to the critical activities which enabled society to function and which were culturally associated with women.
We are a long distance from such times but it is interesting to note in Irish media even in this last week a fair bit of discussion about the importance of continuing to revive the idea of a ‘Women’s Christmas.’
I am not going to get into the rights and wrongs of such a discussion, but I do find that it fascinates that on a day when many celebrate the ‘Wise Men’ that there is in some old Celtic traditions a space for recognising the contribution and role of the female and the criticality of acts of care, compassion and community.
Just six days into 2024 is it too much to hope for a year where compassion and care takes centre stage and topples the ‘wisdom’ of the priorities of our traditional economy and politics? Is to too much to hope for the turning of the tables of expectation to the extent that people who require and need care and support became centre stage of focus rather than an afterthought of priority? Is it too much to hope that epiphany could be the manifestation of goodness rather than the continuation of commerce?
The start of a new year with all its celebrations and activities, all its fresh starts and new beginnings can be especially hard for those for whom this will be yet another year without. It is in those without times when memory aches the heart and the absence of a loved one cuts into your soul, that we need to all of us hold onto the hope that can drag us into the dawn. Maybe that’s why I like the 6th and Epiphany, seeing it not as an end but a dawning, a start, a re-orientation which places a crown on care and gifts the foolishness of compassion a centre stage for the coming year.
Whether today we celebrate the coming of wisdom or the Women’s Christmas it is in the words of John O’Donohue a time to slow down.
This is the time to be slow
This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.
By John O’Donohue. From Benedictus: Book of Blessings
Photo by Damien Creatz on Unsplash