12.26.2009

In the Moon of Wintertime They Come from Distant Lands

So, Christmas is over. Right?

Nope. It's just begun. Contrary to popular belief, Christmas doesn't begin until the 25th of December. Then (cue music) we have the 12 days of Christmas until Epiphany (January 6). Epiphany, or Three Kings Day as it is called many places (including Puerto Rico), is the day when we celebrate the coming of the Magi - the Wise Ones - The Three Kings! So, while everyone else is taking down their decorations and enjoying the 'AFTER CHRISTMAS SALE!'s, those of us who are 'in-the-know' are just getting warmed up!

Three Kings day is an amazing day. Celebrated differently all over the world. Here in the United States, generally, it's a church holy-day wherein we discuss the liturgy of the trip the Magi took to get to the baby Jesus and the gifts they gave (gold, frankincense and myrrh).

One of my favorite Christmas 'carols' is actually a hymn, a very little known hymn, called "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime." In this hymn they relate the story of the baby Jesus and the Magi to 'Native Americans' in order to allow the missionaries to tell the story in a way they will understand. See, the Huron tribe in Canada didn't know what frankincense and myrrh were. They didn't understand what kings were. The missionaries (Christian, of course) had to make the story relate to their tribe and cognitive understanding of the world in order to get the story across to them. Instead of kings, the Magi are portrayed as 'chiefs from afar' and instead of bringing frankincense and myrrh they bring gifts of fox and beaver pelt. God is called Gitchi Manitou (meaning great God in Algonquian) and the baby Jesus is resting in a 'lodge of broken bark' and is wrapped in a 'ragged robe of rabbit skin.'

It amazes me how different cultures see things. It is incredible to me how they can conceptually understand the same story but use completely different imagery to envision it. Our story of the Nativity has such broad meaning when we simply relate it to the culture and understanding of the people we are discussing it with. Yet, somehow, the beauty of the story remains the same, the magic is still there. The three kings are simply chiefs who bring different gifts. This depiction of the Nativity, along with the beautiful tune are so striking that it infests my being and I cannot fathom my life without this hymn in it. I adore every piece of it and it swells in my heart. I know that sounds cliche and very cheesy, but it's true. Every bit of it.

In Puerto Rico, they celebrate Epiphany more so than Christmas. Children put hay/grass in boxes under their beds for the Magi's camel/horse/elephant (it is believed that one came from Europe on horseback, one came from Arabia on elephant, and the other came from Africa on camel - it is because of this belief that one of the Magi is also depicted as black) and in the morning the boxes of hay are switched out for presents/sweets, etc. There are parades, parties, and great festivities. Epiphany is a grand tradition that is enjoyed by all and celebrated thoroughly. The food is generally the same as that of Christmas - rice and beans, pork, blood sausage, potato and macaroni salads, and pasteles (similar to tamales - pockets filled with meat/potato, etc.).

Epiphany is celebrated in Latin America, France and other European countries. Many other countries recognize it as a church holiday, but rarely is it a state holiday as well. I cannot wait to give the children's message on Epiphany Sunday (January 3) and tell them all about the different traditions in Puerto Rico, especially because my love for that place is so grandiose.


*Thanks to my good friend Josefina for the refresher on Puerto Rican traditions for Epiphany.*

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