Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"Follow that Star!"'s Old Christmas

Twelfth Night , 1668 ,by Jan Steen
What do Julius Caesar, Pope Gregory XIII, the Three Wise Men, Shakespeare, Irish women, and that old holiday favorite--"The Twelve Days of Christmas" have in common? They all relate to January 6th (or 5th depending on your interpretation,) sometimes known as Old Christmas...or Epiphany...or Twelfth Night...or Women's Little Christmas...

Julius Caesar bust photographed by Gautier Poupeu
via Wikimedia commons
Long ago in the "land of far far away" (if you live in 21st century Edenton, North Carolina as do I, anyway,) the yearly passing of time was noted by the phases of the moon. When Julius Caesar came into power, he mandated a more accurate accounting and his Julian Calendar, based on the sun and called a tropical or solar year, came into use in 46 BC. To try and even things out, this system added in a number of extra days, Leap Days, every so often. Problem was, there were too many additions and the years became longer and longer. 

The response came about in 1582 under the leadership of Pope Gregory XIII. By his time, the calendar was ten days longer and growing so he deleted some of the Leap Years and brought the calendar into a more regular schedule. Protestant England, however, refused to accept any such changes, scientific or not, from a Catholic leader and steadfastly held on to the old Julian Calendar until the Calendar Act of 1751 put them in alignment with the Continent. By then there was even more of an imbalance and the "old" December 25th-- Christmas Day-- was actually the "new" January 6th. if the math on this doesn't all add up for you, just go with it and don't think about it too deeply or it might give you mathematical brain freeze. Trust me, happens to me all the time.

Pope Gregory XIII by Lavinia Fontana, 1552-1614
The Magi, 1915, Henry Siddons Mowbray
So, January 6th lingered as a traditional day to celebrate Christmas, especially among the Protestant holdouts of England and, today, is affectionately known as "Old Christmas" although most of us don't know why...until now, of course. Now--regarding The Three Wise Men, religious tradition has January 6th as the Feast of the Epiphany. This commemorates the coming of the Magi (i.e. Wise Men, ie astrologers) following the Star of Bethlehem to the the Christ child. An epiphany is a sudden intuitive understanding of the truth of something and this event celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles as represented by the Wise Men from the East.

Okay, now on to Shakespeare. One of his comedies is entitled, "Twelfth Night or What You Will." There appears to be no reference to Twelfth Night anywhere in the play so its title is a mystery with nothing but conjecture as to its meaning. However-- Twelfth Night is a night celebrated January 6th-- although some say it's celebrated the night before on the 5th. (Can you hear the repetitious strains of "Five Golden Rings" echoing in your musical memory?) With all the brouhaha surrounding Julian versus Gregorian Calendars, "Old Christmas" versus "New Christmas, " some folks decided to just enjoy the best of both worlds and began celebrating Christmas for twelve nights beginning December 25th and ending on January 6th. I like that solution, myself. Gives me an excuse to leave up my decorations through the sixth-- "Oh, Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, how brittle are thy branches..."
Women Cheering, Dublin, Ireland, photo by Pete Souza

Women's Little Christmas? Well, that's a fun Irish custom stretching back generations in which the women of the house, tired and worn out from all the Christmas preparation and work, take off for a day (January 6th,) leaving the housework to the menfolk and going out on the town together. Slainte!

Have a good couple weeks, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...y'all come back now! 


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