Kings, Cakes and Traditions for Epiphany

For the 12 Days of Christmas

And now we find ourselves about to enter the 12 Days of Christmas. For a lot of people, the twelve days are observed as a countdown, but then why 12? Why not ten? Historically, the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas begins with Christmas, leading up to Epiphany, the commemorating when the Magi from the East brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child.

As an English carol, “the 12 Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song. Its gifts are twelve drumming drummers, eleven piping pipers, ten leaping lords, nine dancing ladies, eight milking maids, seven swimming swans, six laying geese, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and, you know, a partridge in a pear tree.

The earliest known publication is from a 1790 children’s book titled Mirth without Mischief.

In 1979, a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar, hypothesized that the song is a secret way of teaching one’s catechism during the persecution of Catholics in England but there is no historical support for this. He connected the items with the two testaments, the three theological virtues, the four gospels, the first five books of the old testament, the six days of creation, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the eight beatitudes, the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit, the ten commandments, the eleven apostles, the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle Creed.

I’m a bit of an originalist and use the song just as it is, a silly song to take our breath away, but I can imagine others would like to use it as a teaching tool or fun game with children, connecting the items to their faith.

And gifts

In other traditions, gifts are exchanged on Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day, which, being married to a church organist as I am, would make the day easier. Some families fill shoes on St. Nicholas Day on December 6, stuff stockings on Christmas Eve, exchange gifts on Christmas Day, and then give treats or gifts every day of the 12 Days of Christmas.

Unable to maintain the energy necessary for this feat, I purchased a vintage set of 12 Days of Christmas cookie cutters, make two batches of gingerbread or request them from my obliging mother, and set them in little bags for each of the 12 days.

12 Days of Christmas cookies

That leads us to Epiphany on January 6.

Incidentally, January 6, as the feast of the three kings, marks the opening of King Cake season when you can find King Cake in bakeries that make them, until Martis Gras, the last call for partying before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

I learned a bit about those three kings of Epiphany in a new podcast called Sunday School, part of Pillar Media. On it, Biblical Scholar Dr. Scott Powell explained what we know and what we don’t know about these three men. They were not likely kings. “Of the east” could mean anything east of the Jordan. According to Powell, the three gifts named in the narrative all come from the Babylonian region, where many Jews still lived. Powell summarizes in another podcast the prophecies from Daniel which pointed to a particular timeline that put those waiting for the Messiah on alert. In Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men, Dwight Longenecker digs deeper. There he theorizes the Magi were astrologers and diplomatic representatives of the Nabatean court who traveled from Petra to Jerusalem. For those interested, there are historical explanations.

Mystery of the Magi bookcover

A mixed approach to tradition

This year we’re complicating our older children’s lives by sharing both historical narratives and the fairytale versions. They’ve known for some time St. Nicholas is a historic person, a bishop of Myra, from the fourth century. They know the stories passed down through the centuries about him. We can also watch “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” a 1970 stop motion, made-for-TV movie, and explain that this is how someone who may not have known the history of the real St. Nicholas, imagined the reasons for red suits, etc. The story contains truth, even if its historical truth is inaccurate, like many other fairytales and legends. And along with good jokes in it, we love it.

We’ll discuss the historic nature of the wise men of the east and enjoy the song “We Three Kings.” We’ll make a King Cake for Epiphany. We take the legend with the history, the American traditions, the Catholic traditions, the English and German traditions.

And over time, our family’s traditions take shape.

Wreath of bread rolls

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