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Consider The Twelfth Night

by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

I don’t know about you, but I’m repulsed every Fall when I see Halloween witches, Thanksgiving pilgrims, and Christmas Santa’s displayed on merchants’ shelves throughout the region – all at the same time!  I really cannot abide the commercialization of sacred moments in the liturgical calendar that blunts the meaning of the season, turning it into a sordid indulgence and stripping it of its historical/religious context.

For this reason, I’ve advocated for a long time a not-very-popular curative: remove all reasons for its commercialization.  In other words, treat Christmas like we treat Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Chanukah in the Jewish liturgy.  If Christmas occurs on a weekday, then nonbelievers go to work as usual and believers take the day off for their observances, deducted from their vacation bank.  Officially, the United States is not a Christian nation and so we should not treat Christmas as a national holiday and, consequently, shut down the country.  If citizens really need a collective holiday in December, then let’s go for the Winter Solstice instead.  Such a curative might help us refocus our attention on the essence, not the phony nonsense, of the season.  I readily admit, however, that my proposition will not be popular among most of my students!

Or perhaps we could move our obsessive gift-giving to the Twelfth Night where it belongs traditionally.  That would liberate most people to observe Christmas as a holy day, a reflective day, a gathering day, a day for song and for light as the cold dark winter blankets the landscape.  The date, after all, is not known to be the actual birthday of Jesus and seems instead to have been a contrivance by the early Church to supplant pagan winter festivals.  Still the day stands for its cosmic symbolism of incarnation and fulfillment and has been honored as such for centuries.

Twelfth Night, known as Epiphany, also has a venerable meaning for its Christian observers.  In keeping with ancient religious rites, a liturgical feast begins a new day at sunset so that Twelfth Night (the evening of 5 January) precedes Twelfth Day (6 January).  Epiphany recalls the visitation of the Biblical Magi “from the East” to Bethlehem, celebrating the incarnation of Jesus as the Christ.  Through the millennia, the feast also commemorated other moments in the life of Jesus: all his childhood events, his baptism, and even his supposed miracle at the wedding of Cana in Galilee.  The earliest reference to this feast is attributed to St. Epiphanius, metropolitan of Cyprus, in 361 C.E.  Twelfth Night was and, for some Christian traditions, continues to be a time of merrymaking and gift-giving.  Once again, if folks wish to celebrate Epiphany, then let them take that evening and the next day as vacation times – just like observers do for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Chanukah in the Jewish liturgy.

For the moment, sadly, we must endure this sacrilege of Christmas as merchants and Wall Street define the day for society at-large.  With all its glitter and contrivances, the celebration has become a tacky throw-away Hallmark card that idolizes a 4th-century saint – St. Nikolaos of Myra in present-day Turkey.  When we stop buying into the vulgar consumerism, and recall the deep message of the season, then we may decide to separate the sacred festival of incarnation from its more profane (in the secular or material sense) elements.  During this busy, frenzied time of the year, too often we allow our priorities to become whacky and topsy-turvy.  Let’s reclaim the sacred and throw Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, the elves, and the whole insufferable lot into the recycle bin.  Bah, humbug!

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  1. A good article but that is as far as I will agree with you. Christmas is a time of enchantment and joy for both the little ones and grown ups. There is excitement in the air and a feeling of Magic…I do agree the stores should not have Halloween, Thangsgiving and Christmas sales all at the same time…Keep these holidays seperate…I do not like Witches glaring at Santas and Pilgrims across the aisles, but do away with Christmas??????NEVER!!!!

  2. Here, Here! I whole-heartedly agree with you, Dr. Rinker! The holidays have just become a money-driven machine. People exchanging gifts that have been chosen from a list written by the receiver – more and more gift cards changing hands because, “it is easier.” We all might as well just exchange the dollar bills instead. People say that it is a time for family and friends to come together. I would challenge all to make that all year long. Life is too short and precious to only come together once a year. Caring and compassion should not have a season… it should be a way of life.

  3. The marketing and commercialism of all the holiday’s is in excess as usual. The tinsel and shiny ornaments on display during the Christmas Holiday will entice anyone from a small child to an adult…..That is why the adults need to set their children down and explain the reason for all the gift giving and celebrating…..We are celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus. Whether I give you a gift on the traditional gift giving night of my family, which is Christmas Eve, or on the Twelfth Night , I am giving it out of love and showing my love from my heart like the Wise Men gave to our Lord on that long ago night of his birth in a manger. Everyone has his own beliefs and by rights they should…Absolutely~! I will say to you Merry Christmas if you say Happy Holidays to me. It is Christmas tree NOT a holiday tree….But because I speak the words I believe does not mean I will offend you because of your beliefs. In my heart Christmas and gift giving will always be celebrated with my family on Christmas Eve…. the main reason for my celebration of every day of life is Our Lord Jesus~!

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