I’m writing this evening by the light of our Christmas tree.Yes, it’s well after Christmas and past New Year’s Day, but we still have our tree lit and decorated while it stands tall and proud in front of the living room window. She is a grand tree! Quite unusually, this year our tree chose us instead of us choosing it.
We are not a family to give up Christmas easily.
When my husband and I married, our Christmas decorating traditions collided. His family put up the tree right after Thanksgiving, and it would be undressed and removed right after Christmas. My family tended more to the European tradition of Father Christmas decorating the tree during his stop at our house Christmas Eve. It would remain decorated until the Epiphany. We decided to combine our traditions. The tree is cut and decorated the weekend after Thanksgiving and stays through the Epiphany. I’ve come to appreciate this tradition as it gives me time to enjoy the tree and its glow after the hustle and bustle of Christmas has quieted. I can settle in and savor a bit longer, the hope that is Christmas and all of its magic.
We never did anything particularly special to honor the Epiphany when I was growing up, except to attend church. For some reason, this year I have been particularly curious about the celebration and its counterpart, Twelfth Night. So, first, what is the Epiphany? In the Catholic Church, it is celebrated 12 days from Christmas Eve. But Protestant churches honor the season from January 5th until the beginning of Lent. Well, that would be a long time to leave up a tree, even for us! The Epiphany marks the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist and the visit of the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus.
Twelfth Night is celebrated by many Christians on January 6th because they considered that date the 12th day of Christmas. In either case, decorations were taken down the Epiphany Eve. And in either case, feasting was the mark of the day. Well, of course, it was! Earlier generations were excellent at creating a reason for feasting! A habit I happen to approve!
Wherever Epiphany is celebrated, cakes and pastries are in order, as well as beverages, such as Wassail, and liqueurs. In France, there is the tradition of a flat almond cake called ‘Galette des Rois.’ “Galette” comes from the French word “galet” meaning “rounded pebble.” A toy crown is cooked inside. The cake itself is topped with a crown. The Italian dessert tradition is a puff pastry filled with almond cream. One of my most favorite desserts! Almond is chosen to express something hidden, as the “kernel” of the almond is hidden within an outer shell. This symbolizes the divine nature that is hidden in all. Further, the almond tree blossoms in winter and when they fall, they seem like snowflakes.
I was greatly intrigued by the feasting that is 12th Night. Spices, pastries, cakes, and alcohol seem to mark the celebration no matter where it is celebrated. As with Epiphany, wassail is the popular beverage with its heritage steeped in the tradition of “wassailers” (carolers) visiting apple farms to bless farmers with good health. At each orchard, the wassail bowl is refilled with apple cider or ale.
Epiphany and 12th Night seem to cross traditions in several ways, including eating cakes in which charms have been hidden. The finder of the charm is said to be then blessed with good luck. Many of these cakes are almond based. Some versions are fruitcakes layered with almond cream filling, chocolate, or fruit.
I found the most fascinating of foods to be eaten at this time to be “kutya.” It is a combination of wheat berries and poppy seeds. Kutya served as a cereal or pudding, has its origins in Ukraine and is a symbol of unity among people, fertility, and abundance. I looked at numerous recipes, all of which seemed to be quite involved due primarily to soaking the wheat berry and crushing the poppy seeds. While the seeds can be put into a mechanical food processor, tradition holds that they are crushed with a pestle. The least amount of time for preparation was nearly six hours and most often suggested to be made at least the day, or several days before serving. In Ukraine, it is traditional for Christmas Eve, but other Christian cultures have adopted it for celebrating 12th Night. It is first offered up to honor the dead before partaking of it in celebration of dawn, as represented by the birth of Jesus.