Category Archives: Epiphany

Twelfth Night & Epiphany

This night of January 5, which is our Eleventh Day of Christmas, brings Twelfth Night, and the celebrations of Twelfth Night roll into Epiphany and the Twelfth Day of Christmas… and thus our Twelve Day carol ends.

January 5: Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

Twelfth Night, earlier in history, was once a really big deal. In England, it was, for a long time, a celebration rivaling that of Christmas Day. But one thing to understand about the history of Christmas, especially in Britain, is that it has always had one foot in the church and one foot in the tavern, and, truth be told, the foot in the tavern was probably heavier than the one in the church. Christmas and all its Twelve Days was a rowdy, boisterous time; it’s no wonder the Puritans despised it so. Even nearly two centuries after Puritan rule, Queen Victoria, who loved Christmas and whose husband, Prince Albert, is credited with introducing the Christmas tree to Britain, was not fond of the boisterous qualities of the holiday, and she had Twelfth Night stricken from the calendar during her reign. She disapproved of its rowdiness and thought her subjects would be better off without Twelfth Night. Her disapproval had a major impact on the celebration and it practically died out. And here we are today, the poorer for this. Especially here in the States, where we tend to just let Christmas unceremoniously fade away.

Ever the champion of the underdog, I am here in my role as a Christmas Traditionalist to champion Twelfth Night, too, for it can be a very useful holiday (no matter what Old Queen Victoria thought of it). If you are inclined toward feelings of melancholy or disappointment after Christmas Day has passed, these Twelve Days––and especially Twelfth Night and Epiphany, which provide a proper send-off to the season––are just what’s needed to help get you through that. For all we talk about maintaining links to the past, perhaps it is this, more than anything, that offers the best reason behind keeping an obscure old holiday like Twelfth Night in our contemporary world. Twelfth Night helps us feel more rounded, more complete. This is the value of Twelfth Night.

My family never did celebrate Twelfth Night when I was younger, but we did mark Epiphany. My mom calls it “Little Christmas.” I do remember one year, when I was a boy, feeling kind of down after Christmas Day had passed, and Mom told me, “It’s ok, we still have Little Christmas ahead.” Our little tabletop tinsel Christmas tree, the one she bought decades ago at Lord & Taylor and which we set up at our house now each year, meant a lot more to me after that. Maybe because the tree is little, just like Mom’s “Little Christmas.”

Years later, after my first internship at the Shaker Press, Brother Arnold Hadd and I exchanged so many letters. In one of those letters, that winter that followed my internship, he wrote about the Shakers’ Christmas celebration. It included things like “shaking the tree” (for presents) and their tradition of a Swedish smörgåsbord (this, a tradition given to them by Brother Ted, whom I never did meet), and yes, Twelfth Night. The traditional English Twelfth Night was a fun filled party with, no doubt, lots of ale and cider and punch, lots of food, and music, dancing, and games. When I picture a Twelfth Night party in my head, it looks a lot like the Christmas Eve party that Old Fezziwig throws for his employees in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If you can manage some sort of gathering, and it needn’t be large, well, I think you’d be better for it. We are gathering with family and friends on Saturday evening this time around, for a special meal––crown roast of pork––and some games (including the old Yankee Swap gift game). No fiddler and caller, alas, but still: a proper send off to Old Father Christmas if ever there was one.

In Italy on this Eve of the Epiphany, la Befana will make her rounds, and in Spain and Latin America, los Tres Reyes, the Three Kings, will be doing the same. All of them will be delivering gifts; they are the last of our Midwinter gift bearers. Their stories are intertwined. Epiphany––a celebration older even than Christmas itself––marks the day the Magi arrived after their long journey, following that star, to see the child born in a barn. They arrived with gifts for the child, and so it is no surprise that they are amongst our Midwinter gift bearers. In Italy, though, the legends get a little more interesting, wrapped up as they are with a kindly old witch. There, it is said that the Magi stopped at la Befana’s and asked her for directions and to join them on their journey. They found her sweeping her floor. “No, no,” she told them, “I’m too busy with my housework!” And so the Magi went on their way. But as she swept, la Befana grew remorseful that she had not gone with them, and so she stopped her sweeping, hopped on her broom, and left her home in search of the Magi and the child. But she never found them. Each year on the Eve of the Epiphany, she sets out on her journey again, in search of the child, delivering small presents to good boys and girls, and coal for the not so good ones… but the coal these days is candy and sweet and so even that is not such a bad thing to find in your shoes on Epiphany morning.

I have known lots of Befanas in my day. It comes with the territory when you are of Italian descent. Women and men who clean and clean and clean, and who take great pride in their clean homes. Which is a wonderful thing, of course, but you know that they would’ve said no to the Magi, too, just like la Befana herself did at that first Christmas. Where does she even come from, la Befana? Well, she is an old hag… and so is the earthly goddess at Midwinter in the circular nature of the year: Born in springtime, fair maiden in summer, mother in autumn, old woman in winter. A cycle repeating with each orbit around the sun, another of our stories told again and again since time immemorial.

January 6: Epiphany, Three Kings Day

On this final day of the Christmas season, we come to a celebration that was recognized by the Church even before Christmas itself. It is the day tradition tells us the Magi reached the stable to visit the child after their journey following the star that guided them to Bethlehem. Seeing the child was their epiphany, and that is the name of this day, too: Epiphany. Why was their day honored even before Christmas was? Probably because Epiphany holds the great symbolism that this news of the savior’s birth was for all people. The Magi are not from Judea. They are from distant lands. By journeying for twelve days and paying homage to the child, the Magi show that the message is universal.

In our home, we close the celebration of Christmas on Epiphany night with a simple ceremony at the front door, outside on the front porch. We will gather up all who are in attendance and we will each take turns writing with chalk on the lintel above the front door the numbers and letters and symbols of a traditional inscription. This year, it will read as follows: 20+C+M+B+24. These are the initials of each of the Three Kings (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), punctuated by crosses, blanketed on either side by the year. I tell you this each and every year: For me, the inscribing is always accompanied by a silent prayer that no one will be missing when we gather next to write the inscription again. Depending on the weather, the inscription may be there above the door for a month or it may be there all the year through. And though Christmas be gone, still the inscription reminds us of its presence as we pass each day through that portal. The inscription is a magic charm of sorts, protecting the house and those who pass through the doorway, harboring the goodwill and spirit of Old Father Christmas.

And with that, these Twelve Days of Christmas are done. La Befana is back to her sweeping, sweeping Christmas away, too, and we return to ordinary time, back to the workaday world. The poet Robert Herrick reminds us that it is fine and good, too, to keep the Christmas greenery in your home for the rest of the month of January, and this is something we will be doing. But the major part of the celebration is done, and with that, Old Father Christmas makes his way again to find his rest, until we conjure him back to our homes once more as the year grows old, like he himself.


Just a couple days left of our Twelve Days of Christmas Sale at our online shop. Through January 6, find automatic markdowns on most of our authentic German handmade nutcrackers, pyramids, and incense smokers, and chocolates and cookies, too. If there are things you wished for that Santa couldn’t fit in his sleigh, well, we’re here to help (and to offer you our best prices of the year, too). CLICK HERE to shop!


Image:  Such a fair way to send Father Christmas on his way: “Singing Round the Star on Twelfth Night” by Cornelis Troost. Pastel and brush in gouache on paper, 1740. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Sweets & Quiet Preparation: The Eighth thru Tenth Days of Christmas

Happy New Year, everyone. Two days into 2024, and we are now firmly into the second half of our Christmas journey of twelve days (six days in the old year, six in the new). Once we pass New Year’s Day, the ceremonious aspects of the Twelve Days begin to wind down. Chalk that up, perhaps, to the abundance of celebration that comes with the first seven days… I think by this, the Eighth Day, people need a little normalcy. In our house, it is usually back to work at this point. The Twelve Days of Christmas is very much a tradition that comes out of medieval times. In the contemporary day, employers tend to frown upon twelve days without work. (I think even the rehabilitated Ebenezer Scrooge that we meet in the closing chapters of A Christmas Carol would bristle at the idea of giving his clerk Bob Cratchit twelve whole days leave from the office.) And while it is back to work for most of us, these are still nights that find us in this house tending toward reading books and watching old Christmas movies. But though the Twelve Days of Christmas are winding down, Old Father Christmas is not one to exit each year quietly; he traditionally goes out with a big boisterous celebration, and this celebration is known as Twelfth Night, followed the next day by the arrival of the Magi on Epiphany. These quiet days and nights between New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night are good ones to begin preparations for this grand finale.

January 2: St. Macarius’s Day

And so the Second of January brings the Eighth Day of Christmas, which is St. Macarius’s Day. Macarius was a dour old chap in his old age, an ascetic hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert, surviving on raw vegetables and, on only the most special days, a bit of bread dipped in olive oil. (I can picture my grandmother, holding up her thumb pressed against her index and middle fingers, begging him to just mangia something more than carrots.) But before he became such a stick in the mud, Macarius, in his younger days, operated a confectionary in Alexandria. It is Macarius the Confectioner we remember most these days, and this is why he is a patron saint of cooks, confectioners, and pastry chefs. And for certain his is not the easiest name to pronounce; for this reason he has also been known over the ages as St. Macaroon (perhaps St. Macaron in France?)––fitting enough for a confectioner, I’d say. Anyway, his feast day, falling as it does within the extraordinary time of the Twelve Days of Christmas, has become a day to enjoy sweets (as if you’ve not been doing that already for the first Seven Days of Christmas).

January 3: St. Genevieve’s Day

We celebrate St. Genevieve on the Third of January, the Ninth Day of Christmas. She is a patron saint of Paris, founder there in 475 of Saint-Denys de la Chapelle, which stands today as part of the Basilica of St. Denis. Another of the saints we celebrate this dark time of year that is associated with light, Genevieve’s was a light that never went out. It is said that even as the devil would, each night, attempt to interrupt her prayers by blowing out her candle, Genevieve had the power to relight it without use of flint nor fire. She just willed it to happen. Talk about a light bearer. And while there are no particular customs (that I am aware of, anyway) associated with this Ninth Day of Christmas, there are plenty of us who love the food and culture of France. I think today, St. Genevieve’s Day, is a fine day to enjoy those things fully and to wish those we meet joyeux noël et bonne année!

January 4: St. Titus’s and St. Gregory’s Day

This Tenth Day of Christmas brings the Feast Day of St. Titus and St. Gregory, and it’s also St. Rigobert’s Day and St. Ramon’s Day. Titus was a disciple of St. Paul in the first century, and Gregory was a bishop in the sixth century. Rigobert had a trying time of it as an early Archbishop of Reims––political matters mostly––and he is held up as a model of patience. He kept a goose as a pet; in my experience, that’s something that would take some patience, too. Ramon is particularly difficult to know; he was a bishop and he appears in the Chambers Bros. Book of Days on January 4 for the year 1869, but I have found no mention of him since in more contemporary sources.

With no particular customs associated with the Tenth Day of Christmas, I take it as good day to prepare for the celebrations to come in the next couple of days: Twelfth Night and Epiphany. To that end, I’m going to include today the recipe I give you most years on the blog ahead of Epiphany: our recipe for Three Kings Cakes, steeped in the ancient flavors of that old desert land where the Christmas story first unfolded. With Twelfth Night and Epiphany, our focus shifts outward––toward the Magi who traveled to see the child and outer yet, to the star they followed on their journey. Stars make us think of larger things: far distances, light, the galaxy and the universe beyond. Christmas itself is close to the heart, but Epiphany brings the story to a wider audience: we follow that star, and as the universe expands, so, too, do our hearts at Epiphany.

Twelfth Night, which comes on the evening of January 5, the Eleventh Day of Christmas, is traditionally a cracking good party, a proper send off for Yule and old Father Christmas. In the overnight hours, la Befana, one of the last of the midwinter gift bearers, will make her way through Italy on a broom bringing small presents to good children and delicious sweet coal to naughty ones––so it’s hard to choose which is better. We Italians like to keep things ambiguous. In Spain and Latin America, los Tres Reyes will be delivering presents. The stories of la Befana and los Tres Reyes are intertwined… the three kings stopped at la Befana’s on their way to visit the Christ child and invited her along, but she, like most Italian women I know, had far too much to do, so she declined their invitation, and then later had misgivings about that decision. Still to this day she searches for the child each Epiphany Eve.

Here at home, we bring out illuminated paper star lanterns come Twelfth Night and we make Christmas sweets that, no matter how much we try to bake earlier, never seem to get made until the last few days of the Christmas season. Maybe it is a subconscious decision, for these baked goods feel older, more influenced by ancient flavors, flavors old and familiar to the Magi: Baklava flavored with honey and walnuts, and our friend Paula’s Kourambiedes cookies, each studded with a clove, and our Three Kings Cakes, flavored with honey, rose water, currants, and dates––flavors of the desert, of our ancient past, of that very first Christmas. The cakes are a contemporary riff on old flavors, but the Baklava and the Kourambiedes have a much longer history, the stuff of time immemorial. It’s easy to imagine that our friend St. Macarius, the fourth century confectioner that we discussed earlier and celebrated on the Eighth Day of Christmas, was making these very same things in his shop in Old Alexandria.

So, while there are no particular customs for this Tenth Day of Christmas, mine has become the making of these delicious Three Kings Cakes, so they are ready for Twelfth Night and Epiphany, and perhaps this is the best custom of the day. The recipe yields three cakes, cakes you will prepare in three loaf pans. You will end up with one cake for each of the Magi, who have traditionally been called Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, though no one knows who they were really. As the story goes, it took the Magi all this time to travel through the desert, from Christmas Night to Epiphany, and seeing the child lying in the straw was their great epiphany. Rose water is the main flavoring, mysterious and familiar all the same in the way that only ancient flavors can be. We happen to sell a wonderful rose water made at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine; it is perfect for these cakes.

This recipe began with Jeff Smith, and while he certainly was a problematic figure, I’ve altered the recipe over the years to make it more my own. Most recently, I’ve cut down a bit on the currants, but added in some chopped dates. Again, more of the flavors of that desert land. I do think yule love these cakes! (Sorry, I get a big kick out of that. You can rest easy now that that’s probably the last time I’ll get to use yule that way this Christmastime.)


T H R E E   K I N G S   C A K E S
makes three cakes

For the Batter
1 cup butter or shortening
generous 3/4 cup sugar or monk fruit
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2  cups currants
1 cup chopped dates (pits removed, of course)
3 cups applesauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
4 cups flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream together the butter and the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla. Beat smooth before adding the remaining ingredients. Grease 3 loaf pans (about 8″ x 4″ x 3″ or so) and divide the batter amongst the pans. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick poked into the center of each cake comes out dry. Let the cakes cool in their pans on a rack.

For the Syrup
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
2 tablespoons rose water

Once the cakes are baked, combine the syrup ingredients, except for the rose water, in a saucepan over medium heat. Once the sugar dissolves, add the rose water. Remove the cinnamon stick and the cloves and then pour the hot syrup over the cakes in their pans, divided equally amongst the three cakes. The syrup will soak into the cakes. Allow to cool completely before unmolding from the pans. Serving the three cakes on three platters makes for a nice presentation on Epiphany Day or on Twelfth Night.


At our online shop, our Twelve Days of Christmas Sale continues and brings you automatic markdowns on most of our authentic German handmade nutcrackers, pyramids, and incense smokers. We are running the sale for the full Twelve Days of Christmas, through the Sixth Day of January. If there are things you wanted that Santa couldn’t fit in his sleigh, well, we’re here to help (and to offer you our best prices of the year, too). CLICK HERE to shop!

Image: “The Three Magi,” an illustration from the reproductions of Herrad of Landsberg’s Hortus Deliciarum by Christian Moritz Engelhardt, 1818. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. The original book, known in English as The Garden of Delights, was made by Herrad of Landsberg, a 12th century nun and abbess of Hohenburg Abbey. The original perished in the burning of the Library of Strasbourg in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, but luckily we do have Engelhardt’s 19th century reproductions.

20 + C + M + B + 23

It is Epiphany today, this Sixth of January, the day the Magi are said to have arrived at the stable in Bethlehem to see the newborn child. We’ve had six days of Christmas in the old year and now, six in the new. With Epiphany, the Twelve Days of Christmas come to a close, and we won’t see them again until next December, when this new year is old. Thus one year connects to the next through the bridge that is Christmas.

Many of you will be taking out the Christmas tree this weekend, and some of you have already packed everything away. As for us in this house, we follow the old tradition of keeping the Yuletide season going through January, to Candlemas Eve. Not “Full Christmas,” mind you –– the Santas and other such decorations will soon wend their ways into the closet ’til next Christmas. But we’ll keep the candles burning and we’ll keep the carols playing and we’ll keep the tree inside and illuminated as long as it stays supple and watered. It is just getting to the point of smelling wonderful and we are too much in love with Christmas to send it on its way just now. Candlemas Eve presents a more logical transition, anyway. At that point, the Wheel of the Year clicks another notch, away from Midwinter and toward the first stirrings of Spring as February brings Candlemas and Groundhog Day and St. Brigid’s Day: Brigid, the Bridge from winter to spring.

This is all to say that we welcome you to join us in keeping Yuletide going in your home, too, if you’ve not yet had enough of it. There is good historical and traditional precedent to doing so. Ah, but here is another thing we’ll be doing this Epiphany: inscribing the lintel above our door, in chalk, with an Epiphany blessing: a combination of the year with the initials of the three Magi (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), punctuated by crosses. We’ll do this here at our home, and we’ll do it at the family home, too, when next we are there. All who are gathered will take turns writing the inscription on the lintel above the door. This year’s will read 20+C+M+B+23.

Each year, my silent prayer outside in the cold night air is that no one will be missing when we next gather to do this. There the inscription stays, all the year through if the weather be fine. And though Christmas be gone, still the inscription reminds us of Christmas’s presence as we pass each day through that portal. The inscription is a magic charm of sorts, protecting the house and those who pass through that doorway, harboring the goodwill and spirit of Old Father Christmas. It’s a tradition we’ve seen a great deal of evidence of in our travels through Austria and Germany and Switzerland.

Finally,  I stayed up very late last night working via the Internet with family near and far on recording and editing the newest episode of the Stay Awake Bedtime Stories series that I host for the Jaffe Center for Book Arts. I had told you about this in the previous post to this blog. Well, the video is done. In this newest episode, my cousin Marietta reads The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie de Paola, while her sister Cammie plays la Befana and Seth and my cousins Larry and Al play the Three Kings. I invite you now to Stay Awake with Marietta Falconieri & Family as Marietta tells the tale of Old Befana, who travels throughout Italy on the Eve of the Epiphany, as the Fifth of January becomes the Sixth. In fact, la Befana must be traveling through the sky right now, as I write this! Click here to watch.

And at our online shop, the Twelve Days Sale continues but it is over on Saturday. Find reduced prices on many of our handmade nutcrackers and pyramids and nativities from Germany, and on many of our Mexican nativity sets, too. It’s our first real sale (no discount code, just a proper sale) and once Saturday has passed, it’s back to regular prices, so if you’ve had your eye on something festive, perhaps for next Christmas… take a look: it may very be on sale right now. Click here to shop the sale.