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The Last Day of Christmas


January 6 is Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, Old Christmas, or my personal favorite - Woman's Christmas. The time between Christmas Day (December 25) - celebrated by many as the day of Jesus' birth, and Epiphany (January 6) is believed to represent the time that it took the Three Wise Men (or the Three Kings or the Three Magi) to travel to Baby Jesus. Some faiths celebrate January 6 as the day on which Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. In Ireland, January 6 is still celebrated as Woman's Christmas - a day when men take over the housework and women celebrate the close of the Christmas season by either going out together, or staying in and being served by the men. There's a tradition that needs to make its way to the US!

In cultures that celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany, January 6 marks the end of the Christmas Season. Believe it or not, there are some cultures where the Christmas celebration lasts until February 2 - this celebration is called Candlemas.

Epiphany is another gift-giving day, and king cakes are eaten to celebrate the close of the Christmas season. Other cultures' celebrations of Epiphany center around water - involving baptismal rights and house blessings.

While the last day of Christmas is kind of sad, it is also a good time to think about the coming spring. Days are getting longer, and more sunlight means that trees and plants will be coming out of their dormant states soon and blooming again once the weather gets warmer. In many ways today is the end, but also the beginning of a whole new cycle.


Hosting a Twelfth Night Party


New Year's Eve is typically a big party night. Last year we had a couple close friends over and just ate a bunch of good food, went in our hot-tub and drank some champagne. It was really nice to not have to deal with crowds and to be able to enjoy the evening together. And to gorge ourselves. I am not condoning gorging yourselves, but we have been planning tonight's dinner for a while. It's worth it.

But New Year's Eve does not have to be the last big hurrah of the holiday season. January 6, which is just around the corner, is the Twelfth Day of Christmas (also known as Epiphany). So Sunday January 5 is Twelfth Night.

In medieval times, Twelfth Night was celebrated with grand balls and village parties, complete with Twelfth Night cakes with a bean or trinket hidden inside to choose the "king" to preside over the night's revelries.

In Elizabethan times, a temporary Lord of Misrule presided over the season's revelries while the nobility acted as servants - a world deliberately turned upside down for a night. You could try crowning a Lord of Misrule at your Twelfth Night Party, or you could just have a nice afternoon or evening where you open your house up to friends and family to come together one last time for the holidays.

If you do want to try hosting a Twelfth Night party, I have included here a couple of traditional recipes you might want to serve your guests.

In old English and French Twelfth Night celebrations, a cake would be baked to celebrate Epiphany. In both English and French traditions, an bean and a pea would be baked in to the cake, and whoever got the piece with the pea and the bean, would be the king and queen of the night. To read more about twelfth-cake (also called King's Cake) see Wikipedia.

The French Twelfth Night Cake (Gateau des Rois - King's Cake) is more like a rich bread, due to the high number of eggs, and the relatively low amount of sugar. It goes great with a cup of coffee for breakfast, too! The recipe, which you can find here is not complicated, but it does take just about all day to make the cake - with hours of downtime.

The English version of Twelfth Cake is very different from the French version. This cake is more cake-like and contains some lovely rum-soaked fruit. You can find the English Twelfth Cake recipe here.

Another traditional thing to serve at a Twelfth Night party is Wassail.

Wassailing was an old country tradition that took place on Twelfth Night or "Old Christmas Eve," especially in areas where cider apples were grown. Right before dark the wassail (spiced ale or hard cider topped with roasted apples) would be prepared and ladled into the special wassail bowl (similar to a punch bowl with handles). The village would gather at the orchard after dark with the wassail on hand and proceed to bang pots, shoot off guns, and make a racket to frighten away any evil spirits that could still be lurking about on this last night of Christmas. This commotion would also help to begin to "wake up" the trees from their winter hibernation. The trees were blessed with thanks and urged with rhyming chants to produce an even better crop in the new year. The oldest, most venerable tree's health would be "toasted" with a piece of wassail-soaked bread or cake placed in its branches. 

If wassail was left over after regaling the trees, then the ceremonies would conclude with the villagers quenching their own thirst before returning home. In some areas, the young people would go from house to house in the village, singing wassail songs and receiving small gifts or treats in return.

Wassail is an old Middle English contraction of waes hael, meaning "be health" or "be whole," that was derived from the old Norse ves heill "to be healthy." The reply to waes hael was drinc hael, or "drink and be healthy." The modern expression "hale and hearty" shares the same roots.

You can find a lovely recipe for wassail here.

 




Let's Start a New Tradition


Today, December 26th, is the First Day of the Twelve Days of Christmas. These days December 26th means Christmas is over to most people, but in the Middle Ages there was still almost two weeks of Christmas left!

Churches circulated donation boxes amongst the congregation during Advent, and those boxes and their contents were distributed amongst the poor on the First Day of Christmas, otherwise known as Boxing Day.

Several countries still celebrate Boxing Day - including Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Canada. In some Canadian provinces Boxing Day is a statutory holiday when all workers are given a mandatory day off with full pay. In the countries that still celebrate Boxing Day, it is much like the day after Thanksgiving in the United States - a huge shopping day. Which is really ironic given the historical bases for the holiday.

I would like to see a tradition start where instead of running out to hit the after Christmas sales, or running out to return and exchange gifts, Boxing Day made a real come back. This year I plan to take a good inventory of our home and donate items that we no longer need or use to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Why not have Boxing Day be the day that you give each member of your household a box and ask them to fill it with things to donate to charity? You could spend Boxing Day volunteering at a soup kitchen. Or donate some money to a charitable organization? It is easy to get wrapped up in the season, but this time of year should really be a time to realize how lucky we are to have warm families and warm homes, and to think of and do something for those who are not as fortunate.

 


Christmas Food Traditions from Around the World


Many countries and cultures have foods that serve as symbols. Wine and bread, for example, play key roles in many christian ceremonies. Beans are considered lucky on New Year's Day in the South, the Caribbean and parts of the Middle East. In ancient Rome grain symbolized good fortune and plenty. Many of these food based symbols come up during the Christmas season and have roots dating back to times when these short, cold days were spent inside with family looking forward to longer days and the spring to come.

 

The pretzel shape has a special significance - it is derived from a pagan calendar symbol to mark the winter solstice. The pagan marking consisted of a circle, which represented the sun's course and the dot in the center of the circle to represent the earth. When this shape is made from one piece of rolled dough, the dot in the center becomes a cross, thus making the pretzel shape we are all familiar with. Countries such as Denmark and Finland still have traditional pretzels to celebrate this time of year.

 

 

 

The yule log, or buche de noel is a jelly-roll cake that is frosted and decorated to look like a log - a yule log. This type of cake is popular in France (buche de noel), Italy (ceppo de natale), Lithuania (berzo saka - filled with prune jam, chocolate and walnuts), England (yule log - filed with apricot jam and almonds and covered with red currant jelly and almond paste icing) and Norway (julestamme - filled with strawberry or raspberry jam and covered with whipped cream or almond paste icing).

 

Shortbread, a classic Scottish treat, is a traditional Christmas and New Year's treat that descended from the oatmeal bannock that was served at pagan Yule celebrations. The bannock was a round cake with a circle in the center and ridges around the rim to symbolize the sun and its rays. It is considered unlucky to cut shortbread with a knife - it should be broken into pieces to avoid bad luck.


A Couple of My Favorite Silly Christmas Carols


It would be really hard for me to pick one single song as my favorite Christmas carol - as I really do enjoy a lot of them. Obviously The Twelve Days of Christmas would top my list, but I also have a soft spot for some more obnoxious and less classic carols, like All I want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth sung by the Chipmunks and eleven-year-old Gayla Peevey's I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas. 

Anyway, I think the 1940s through the 1960s has to be the golden age of Christmas carols. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the older carols too, but there is just something so festive about the songs written in and around the 1950s. Here are some of my favorites:

All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth 

Written in 1944 by Donal Yetter Gardner and first recorded in 1947. According to Wikipedia, Gardner, a children's music teacher, got the idea for the song when he noticed that most of his young students were missing at least one front tooth. He asked his students what they wanted for Christmas, and most replied with a whistle due to the missing teeth. It is rumored that he wrote the song in only thirty minutes!

 

 

 

 

 

I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas 

This song was a hit in 1953, written by John Rox and sung by eleven year old Gayla Peevey on the Ed Sullivan Show. While her request for Christmas is a little less realistic than having adult teeth grow in, I still think its a fun song. I don't hear it as often as others on the radio, but when I do it always gets stuck in my head!

The song was a hit on the Billboard charts and reached number 24. It was so popular that rumors were created around the young singer and the song. Rumor had it that the song was released as a fundraiser to help Peevey's hometown zoo raise the funds the acquire a hippo. In 2007, however, the grown up singer clarified that a radio station from her home town (Oklahoma City) had used the popularity of the song to launch a campaign to present young Peevey with an actual hippopotamus on Christmas - and the campaign was successful! After her dream came true, Peevey donated her hippo (named Matilda) to the local zoo where the hippo lived a long life. You can see a video of the grown up Peevey singing at the Oklahoma City Zoo here.

 

 

 

 


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