Epiphany 2021: When should I take the Christmas tree down and what are the traditions behind the Twelfth Night?

While New Year’s Day marks the end of the Christmas period, remnants of the holiday festivities still remain. The surplus of food will be used to make meals until it comes to its natural end, but when to take down your Christmas tree and decorations continues to be an ongoing debate. Is Tuesday 5 January, or Wednesday 6 January, the best day to tackle the task? And what happens if you leave them up for longer? Are you really struck down with bad luck for the rest of the year as the superstition goes?

One thing’s for sure – everyone does it differently, and everyone has their own ideas.

What is Epiphany?

In Britain, tradition has it that Christmas decorations stay up until Twelfth Night.

And this is where the confusion lies. Twelfth Night is a festival in some branches of Christianity which marks the beginning of Epiphany.  A count of exactly 12 days from 25 December arrives at 5 January. According to the Church of England, this day is Twelfth Night. The day of Epiphany – when the three wise men came – is the day after, on 6 January. 

Not everyone agrees however. Many other Christian groups count the 12 days of Christmas as starting the day after Christmas Day – making 6 January the Twelfth Night. Countries which also follow the January 6 tradition include Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. 

So which date is correct? 

Both. Although in the UK, Tuesday 5th January 2021 is the date most people will stick to.

And if you forget?

Most people think that it’s bad luck to leave your decorations up after the 5th.

Unhappy boy stands before chistmas tree and makes a face

People can hold strong opinions on which day you should take down decorations

mikkelwilliam / E+

Some people think it’s also wrong to take them down too early, too. In ancient times, people believed that tree-spirits lived in the holly and ivy. After the festive season, they would be released outside but if they were let go before Christmas ended, there could be problems with the harvest as a result.

And if you miss Twelfth Night entirely?

According to one superstition, Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night should be left up until Candlemas Day (2nd February) and then taken down. Other people say the best remedy is to leave them up until Twelfth Night the following year.

Whatever date you choose, it is worth noting that the ‘rules’ have changed over history. 2nd February, in fact, actually used to be the date when Christians took their decorations down, as noted in this poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674):

“Down with the rosemary, and so Down with the bays and mistletoe ;Down with the holly, ivy, all, Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall”

— “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”

In these more modern times, though, most of us stick to Twelfth Night as the correct date.

The history of the Epiphany

Up until the 19th century, the Epiphany was more important than Christmas Day, and it was used to celebrate both the three kings’ (or three wise men’s) visit to Jesus shortly after his birth and also Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

In the West, Christians began celebrating the Epiphany in the 4th century, associating it with the visit of the Magi (the three kings) to Bethlehem.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, the three wise men – named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – followed the star of Bethlehem across the desert to meet the baby Jesus, offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts were symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth, the gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.

The word ‘Epiphany’ comes from Greek and means ‘manifestation’. It celebrates ‘the revelation of God in his Son as human in Jesus Christ’. The six Sundays which follow Epiphany are known as the time of manifestation; the last Sunday of the Epiphany is celebrated as Transfiguration Sunday.

Festivities for the ancient Christian feast day vary around the world, from swimming in icy waters to exchanging presents, fireworks and parades. In many countries the day is a public holiday.

In the Spanish speaking world, Epiphany is known as Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings’ Day). In Mexico, crowds gather to taste the Rosca de Reyes – Kings’ bread. In other countries, a Jesus figurine is hidden in the bread.

As recently as the 1950s, Twelfth Night in Britain was a night for wassailing. Wassailers, like carol singers, go from house to house singing and wishing their neighbours good health. 

The Drury Lane Theatre in London has had a tradition since 1795 of providing a Twelfth Night cake. The will of Robert Baddeley made a bequest of £100 to provide cake and punch every year for the company in residence at the theatre on 6 January. The tradition still continues. 

10 facts about the Feast of the Epiphany

  1. The three Kings (Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar) represented Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively.
  2. Hundreds of years ago, roast lamb was traditionally served at Epiphany in honour of Christ and the three Kings’ visit.
  3. Whoever finds the small statue of a baby Jesus hidden inside their slice of the Rosca de reyes throws a party on Candlemas in February.
  4. In some European countries, children leave their shoes out the night before to be filled with gifts, while others leave straw for the three Kings’ horses.
  5. According to Greek Orthodox Church’s traditions, a priest will bless the waters by throwing a cross into it as worshippers try to retrieve it.
  6. In Bulgaria too, Eastern Orthodox priests throw a cross in the sea and the men dive in – competing to get to it first.
  7. In Venice, a traditional regatta that started as a joke in the late 70s has been incorporated in the celebrations of Epiphany Day.
  8. In Prague, there is a traditional Three Kings swim to commemorate Epiphany Day at the Vltava River.
  9. In New York, El Museo del Barrio has celebrated and promoted the Three Kings’ Day tradition with an annual parade for more than three decades. Thousands take part in the procession featuring camels, colorful puppets and floats.
  10. The day’s activities involve singing holiday carols called aguinaldos.

Original Source

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