Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. – Matthew 2:1-2
In the Catholic calendar today is the feast of the Epiphany, popularly called “Little Christmas” or “King Day” in some places because it is the observance of the visit of the Magi, also called the “Three Kings”, astrologers of Persia or Babylon whom Matthew described as coming to visit the infant Jesus. Though Matthew only refers to them as “wise men”, the legend grew until they became kings in accordance with Isaiah 60:3, “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” The tradition eventually assigned them the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar; these appear to derive from an early 6th century Greek manuscript composed in Alexandria. Because Matthew describes them as bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh many Christian countries shifted their Christmas gift-giving to this day. This was the prevailing custom in Christendom from the Dark Ages until the Reformation, when it returned to Christmas Eve in most countries (though Spain and former Spanish colonies such as Mexico and the Philippines still give gifts to children on the eve of this day). Indeed, in some countries the traditional gift-givers are the Three Kings themselves rather than one of the many versions of Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas, and children in those countries fill their shoes with straw on the eve of the Epiphany so as to provide fodder for the kings’ camels.
Italian children also receive their gifts on Epiphany Eve, but not from the Three Kings; the traditional gift giver is instead a witch named Befana, a Christianized version of the Roman goddess Strenia (who was associated with ancestral spirits, forests, and the passage of time and identified with the Greek Hecate). Some authorities claim that her name is derived from an Italian mispronunciation of the Greek epiphaneia (epiphany), but if that is the case it is likely in combination with the word Bastrina, the Latin word for the gifts given by Strenia. Like Santa Claus she flies, enters through the chimney and leaves presents for good children and coal for bad ones (even good ones receive a lump of black rock candy because all children are bad sometimes). It is also customary to leave her food and wine just as Santa is left cookies and milk (or sherry in England). But while Santa has a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer, Befana flies on her broom and often sweeps the floor of a house before she leaves.
In Russia, today is not Epiphany but rather Christmas Eve; the reason for this is complicated. The Gregorian calendar was developed in 1582 on the order of Gregory XIII, a Roman Catholic pope, so the only countries which adopted it immediately were Roman Catholic ones. Protestant countries took longer; Denmark and her possessions adopted it in 1700, and the British Empire in 1752. But Eastern Orthodox countries took longest of all; Russia remained on the Julian calendar until the revolution of 1917, and Greece until 1923. In 1582 the accumulated error of the old calendar was ten days; by the time the British Empire switched the error was eleven days, and by the time Russia adopted the new calendar it had grown to thirteen days. But though the new Communist regime had accepted the Gregorian calendar for pragmatic and scientific reasons, the Russian Orthodox Church would have none of it; Orthodox Church leaders saw no reason to use a calendar developed by Roman Catholics and endorsed by atheists, and so remained on the Julian calendar despite its 13-day error. Pre-revolutionary Russians celebrated Christmas on what their calendar said was December 25th, but the rest of the world called it January 7th and so it is today. And unless the Russian Orthodox Church adopts the Gregorian calendar within the next 89 years, Russian Christmas will after that time occur on January 8th.
In New Orleans, King Day is the official beginning of Carnival, the season between Christmastide and Lent. The last day of the Carnival season is Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French), so called because it is the last day of normal eating and drinking before the fasting season of Lent begins on the next day, Ash Wednesday. The latter changes from year to year; it is always 40 days before Easter, but Easter is defined as the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring and can thus vary by as much as four weeks. Since Epiphany occurs on a fixed date, Carnival season is of variable length. It is a festive time in New Orleans, dominated by parades, Carnival balls, private parties and the eating of king cakes (see yesterday’s column for recipe). Carnival is the most lucrative time of year for New Orleans whores; locals in a celebratory mood spend more freely, and since no other part of the United States has such a tradition tourism sharply increases as well. Best of all, the police are far too busy with crowd control at parades to have any time to spend on harassing prostitutes. So though I did not realize it at the time, January 2nd was a very advantageous point at which to start my career; I think I made more money in the next two months than I had in the previous six as a stripper.
I don’t live in New Orleans any more, and I must admit I miss it most at this time of year. Though I was never all that fond of parades, I enjoyed the high spirits and festive atmosphere of Carnival despite the hassles caused by parade traffic and blocked streets. Still, you can take the girl out of New Orleans, but you can’t take New Orleans out of the girl; I always make our first king cake of the year on this day, and while it’s rising and baking we put away the Christmas decorations and take the tree down, just as most New Orleanians do. And at some point in January, we always take a trip down to New Orleans to visit and exchange presents with Frank and Olivia and with Denise, to eat at a few of our favorite restaurants and see a few of our favorite places, and to stock up on some of the foods unique to the Crescent City.