7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring the word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him; and when they had opened their treasures, they presented onto him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
The word, ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, for us epiphany, means appearance or manifestation. In its biblical sense it is the appearance of God among men. As one might expect, there is little general agreement in the Christian churches about what exactly Epiphany (the feast day) commemorates. In some eastern traditions it is more about the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist than about the visit of the three kings (otherwise three wise men). In Ireland of course it is the day when it is formally all over until next year (thank God), the day we take down the cards and the decorations – or at least the day from which it is legitimate for a wife to ask her husband “Are you ever going to take down those decorations?”
In many countries it is a day to eat “king cakes”: in Finland these are gingerbread biscuits (piparkakut), baked in the shape of a star. The biscuit is broken in the hand as one makes a wish. If it breaks into three clean pieces and they are then eaten one after the other without saying a word, the wish will come true. In France, depending on region, the king cake is either a galette des Rois (flat) or a gâteau des Rois (crown-shaped). In either case it will contain a charm, known as a fève. The cake is cut by the youngest person in the household (I remember performing this office myself many times at Hallowe’en with the barm brack, which contained a ring) and whoever gets the piece with the fève must wear a paper crown and has the option of pouring everyone’s drink or offering to host another king cake party in their own home, which could extend the whole thing as far as Easter. Do these French people ever do any work? In the absence of a living king cake tradition in Ireland we could perhaps perform similar rituals with King crisps.
We do of course have the tradition of Nollaig na mBan, when the women of the house are supposed to be able to put their feet up for a change, have a drink and be waited on by the men. But there is none of this being waited on in our most famous literary Epiphany story, James Joyce’s “The Dead”.
Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies too. But Miss Julia and Miss Kate had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies’ dressing room.
Not that it is a great night out either for the men, despite being waited on hand and foot. Gabriel Conroy, bursting with heteronormative bonhomie, remarks cheerily to young Lily: “ … I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man”. To which Lily tartly replies: “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” It only remains for Gabriel to be outed as a West Briton by the patriotic Miss Ivors and finally to be brought by the memory of the various dissatisfactions and embarrassments of the evening and the discovery of his wife’s lingering wound over her dead lover, Michael Furey, to a bitter epiphany about himself:
A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.
Happy Little Christmas.
Illustration: The Adoration of the Maji, woodcut by Albrecht Durer