The richest gifts we can bestow are the least marketable. – Henry D. Thoreau
January 6th means many different things to different people in different parts of the world. In Western Christian tradition it is the Epiphany, the day on which the Magi are supposed to have brought gifts to the infant Jesus; because of this Christmas gift-giving was shifted to this date in the Dark Ages and remained so until the Reformation, when it shifted back to Christmas in all but the most staunchly Catholic countries (namely Spain and Italy). As I explained in my first column for the holiday, children in Spanish-speaking countries still receive their gifts from Los Tres Reyes, for whom they leave out their shoes on Twelfth Night. Italian children also found their gifts this morning, but there the traditional gift-giver is a witch named Befana, a modern form of the Roman goddess Strenia (who in Greece was known as Hecate).
In French tradition, today is the beginning of the carnival season, which extends until Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday; in New Orleans it is the day we traditionally take down our Christmas trees and start eating king cake (though I’ve noticed some creep back toward New Year’s Day among the hasty). Due to an early paschal full moon, Mardi Gras will fall quite early this year, on February 12th; carnival is thus barely over a month long and the celebrations will therefore be relatively concentrated.
In Russia, today is Christmas Eve because the Russian Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar with its extra leap day in three out of four centenary years. Their traditional gift-giver is Grandfather Frost (usually accompanied by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden); during communist rule he began to bring gifts on (Gregorian) New Year’s Eve because the celebration of Christmas (on any date) was strongly discouraged, but since the fall of the Soviet Union the gifting date seems to vary by region or even by family, ranging from December 25th all the way to January 7th. Perhaps in a generation or so it will settle down to a consensus, but given the circumstances it isn’t surprising things are in flux right now.