O God, who sent fire from heaven upon the sacrifice offered by Elijah, the prophet of the Anointed One; who led the children of Israel through the desert with the pillar of fire; who led wise men from the East to the house of Wisdom by a fiery star; and who fulfilled the prophecy of John the Forerunner by sending the Christ who baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire: Pour your blessing upon this Epiphany flame that it may be a reminder to all of the true Light who came into the world as at this time, and who ignites us with the Holy Spirit to lead us on our pilgrimage with the fire of his Love; through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“…It is often called the “Christmas star” and it is seen in crèches and in artworks depicting the Nativity of our Lord. But the star does not actually come into the story until the entrance of the Wise Men, and Matthew indicates that their visit was some time after the birth of Jesus, perhaps as much as two years. By the time the Wise Men arrive, the Holy Family is neither in a stable nor in an inn, but a house. We do not have to be literalists about details like this, but we could save the star for the end of Christmas, and as a segue into Epiphany. If the Wise Men for your crèche have been making their way through the house or even just across the room, today might be the day to hang the star. Before hanging the star, get out your favorite cookie recipe and your star cookie cutter and make some star cookies. (If you don’t have a favorite recipe, here is one that looks good.) Make enough to have some samples when you hang the star, and more to eat tomorrow when Epiphany is in full swing. The shepherds and the angels should be back in their box. In fact, they could have been removed days ago. The Wise Men may need to make their visit to a stable, rather than a house, but, as we said, we do not have to be literalists about this. And, wherever they encounter the King for whom they have been searching, they may arrive in the crèche either tonight or tomorrow morning.
Epiphany really begins this evening, as Twelfth Night is the Eve of the Epiphany, so we have two reasons for a party: the end of Christmas and the beginning of Epiphany. In the middle ages, these Twelfth Night parties could get quite rowdy. It was the Feast of Fools in which the order of the world was turned upside down, with fools reigning as kings and all sorts of people taking on roles quite the opposite of their true character. Shakespeare, in his play by the same name, gives us a picture of such a topsy-turvy world as Viola masquerades as a man, people fall in love across class lines, and the lowly indulge in ridiculous delusions of grandeur. It would be quite foolish to deny the Christian significance of all of this. There are few things more serious and true than the games people play. The medieval Feast of Fools reminds us that Christmas celebrates nothing less than a world turned upside down in which God becomes man in order that man might become divine. So, party on!..”
From the Chambers’ Book of Days
Twelfth-day Eve is a rustic festival in England. Persons engaged in rural employments are, or have heretofore been accustomed to celebrate it; and the purpose appears to be to secure a blessing for the fruits of the earth.
In Herefordshire, at the approach of the evening, the farmers with their friends and servants meet together, and about six o’clock walk out to a field where wheat is growing. In the highest part of the ground, twelve small fires, and one large one, are lighted up. The attendants, headed by the master of the family, pledge the company when in old cider, which circulates freely on these occasions. A circle is formed round the large fire, when a general shout and hallooing takes place, which you hear answered from all the adjacent villages and fields. Sometimes fifty or sixty of these fires may be all seen at once. This being finished, the company return home, where the good housewife and her maids are preparing a good supper. A large cake is always provided, with a hole in the middle. After supper, the company all attend the bailiff (or head of the oxen) to the wain-house, where the following particulars are observed: The master, at the head of his friends, fills the cup (generally of strong ale), and stands opposite the first or finest of the oxen. He then pledges him in a curious toast: the company follow his example, with all the other oxen, and addressing each by his name. This being finished, the large cake is produced, and, with much ceremony, put on the horn of the first ox, through the hole above mentioned. The ox is then tickled, to make him toss his head: if he throw the cake behind, then it is the mistress’s perquisite; if before (in what is termed the boosy), the bailiff himself claims the prize. The company then return to the house, the doors of which they find locked, nor will they be opened till some joyous songs are sung. On their gaining admittance, a scene of mirth and jollity ensues, which lasts the greatest part of the night.’ — Gentleman’s Magazine, February, 1791. The custom is called in Herefordshire Wassailing. The fires are de-signed to represent the Saviour and his apostles, and it was customary as to one of them, held as representing Judas Iscariot, to allow it to burn a while, and then put it out and kick about the materials.
At Pauntley, in Gloucestershire, the custom has in view the prevention of the smut in wheat. ‘All the servants of every farmer assemble in one of the fields that has been sown with wheat. At the end of twelve lands, they make twelve fires in a row with straw; around one of which, made larger than the rest, they drink a cheerful glass of cider to their master’s health, and success to the future harvest; then returning home, they feast on cakes made with carraways, soaked in cider, which they claim as a reward for their past labour in sowing the grain.’
‘In the south hams [villages] of Devonshire, on the eve of the Epiphany, the farmer, attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cider, goes to the orchard, and there encircling one of the best bearing trees, they drink the following toast three several times:
Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud,
and whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! caps full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
This done, they return to the house, the doors of which they are sure to find bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all entreaties to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing, difficult to be hit on, and is the reward of him who first names it. The doors are then thrown open, and the lucky clod-pole receives the tit-bit as his recompense. Some are so superstitious as to believe, that if they neglect this custom, the trees will bear no apples that year.’ — Gentleman’s Magazine, 1791, p. 403.