January 27

Feast of the Translation of the Relics of St John ChrysostomYou may have noticed that the more important Christian saints have a number of feast days dedicated to them. One good reason to mark their life is if their relics have been moved from one spot to another, usually a more honoured, location — such a shift in bones is called a translation. On this day in 438, the remains of the most celebrated preacher of the ancient Church were moved from where he had died on his way to exile to Constantinople’s Church of the Holy Peace. 

John had been banished in 407 for upsetting the sensibilities of the Empress Eudoxia who was offended by his comparison of her to the evil wife of Herod. In 438 Proclus, the patriarch of Constantinople convinced Emperor Theodosius II, son of Eudoxia, to fetch the saint’s bones back to the imperial capital. The story goes:

The emperor, overwhelmed by Saint Proclus, gave his consent and gave the order to transfer the relics of Saint John. But those he sent were unable to lift the holy relics until the emperor realized that he had sent men to take the saint’s relics from Comana with an edict, instead of with a prayer. He wrote a letter to Saint John, humbly asking him to forgive his audacity, and to return to Constantinople. After the message was read at the grave of Saint John, they easily took up the relics, carried them onto a ship and arrived at Constantinople.

Safely in his new home, John’s body was visited by Theodosius who apologized for this mother’s actions.

In 1204 Latin crusaders broke open the tomb and stole the relics but in 2004 some of them were returned by Pope John Paul II and are now ensconced in St George’s Church, Istanbul. A silver and jewel-encrusted skull is held in the Vatopedi Monastery in Greece and the monks of Mount Athos venerate it as John’s but the Russian Orthodox Church claims that Vatopedi sold the skull to the Russian czar in the 17th century and they now have it in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Not to be outdone, two Italian churches also assert that they have the saint’s head.



January 25

The Conversion of St Paul celebrated

The Church named January 25 as the festival day for the celebration of the conversion of St Paul (aka Paul of Tarsus) described in Acts 9. It was once the occasion of a colourful procession in London, whose patron saint was Paul. In 1555, in the reign of Mary and Philip, it is recorded that:

On St. Paul’s day there was a general procession with the children of all the schools in London, with all the clerks, curates, and parsons, and vicars, in copes, with their crosses; also the choir of St. Paul’s; and divers bishops in their habits, and the Bishop of London, with his pontificals and cope, bearing the sacrament under a canopy, and four prebends bearing it in their gray amos; and so up into Leadenhall, with the mayor and aldermen in scarlet, with their cloaks, and all the crafts in their best array; and so came down again on the other side, and so to St. Paul’s again. And then the king, with my lord cardinal, came to St. Paul’s, and heard masse, and went home again; and at night great bonfires were made through all London, for the joy of the people that were converted likewise as St. Paul was converted.

Connected to this day was the yearly presentation to the cathedral’s clergy of a fat buck and doe, an obligation incurred in 1375 in recompense for the enclosure of some of the Dean’s land. It sounds pretty darn pagan to me.

On these days, the buck and the doe were brought by one or more servants at the hour of the procession, and through the midst thereof, and offered at the high altar of St. Paul’s Cathedral: after which the persons that brought the buck received of the Dean and Chapter, by the hands of their Chamberlain, twelve pence sterling for their entertainment; but nothing when they brought the doe. The buck being brought to the steps of the altar, the Dean and Chapter, appareled in copes and proper vestments, with garlands of roses on their heads, sent the body of the buck to be baked, and had the head and horns fixed on a pole before the cross, in their procession round about the church, till they issued at the west door, where the keeper that brought it blowed the death of the buck, and then the horns that were about the city answered him in like manner; for which they had each, of the Dean and Chapter, three and fourpence in money, and their dinner; and the keeper, during his stay, meat, drink, and lodging, and five shillings in money at his going away; together with a loaf of bread, having in it the picture of St. Paul.

January 23

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1656

Pascal publishes the first of his Provincial Letters.

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was an enormously influential French scientist, philosopher and religious writer. His work on hydraulic power, geometry, mathematics and mechanical computation helped to energize the nascent Second Scientific Revolution.

In his 20s Pascal became acquainted with Jansenism, a Catholic movement with pronounced ideas on grace which ran into controversy with Church authorities who labelled it a heresy. Before the sect was outlawed by the pope and Louis XIV, Pascal began to write on religious subjects. On this day in 1656 he published the first of his Provincial Letters, which were eventually to number eighteen. In them, Pascal, under a pseudonym, used brilliant satire and elegant language to attack current notions on grace and the Jesuit use of the philosophical tool known as casuistry, which Pascal condemned as a mere clever use of language to rationalize moral laxity. The series of essays won wide praise for its literary style but condemnation for its religious content. The king ordered the writings shredded and publicly burnt; Pascal had to go into hiding.

The Provincial Letters remain a monument of French literature, praised by critics of all sorts. The agnostic philosophe Voltaire and Bossuet, the ultra-orthodox Catholic bishop, were both admirers. Even the 20th-century Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc, who attacked Pascal’s accusations against the Jesuits, spoke of the work’s “wit and fervour”.

Pascal is probably best known for his famous wager about the existence of God, outlined in his Pensées and a giant step in probability theory.

 If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is…God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is infinite chaos that separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it.

“No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

January 21

1908 New York bans women smoking in public

Though the prohibition of alcohol is a story well-known to fans of Elliot Ness and the Untouchables, less attention has been paid to the serious campaigns waged against the consumption of tobacco.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was a leader in this campaign, urging boys and girls to take the Clean Life Pledge: “I hereby pledge myself with the help of God to abstain from all intoxicating liquors as a beverage and from the use of tobacco in any form.” At the turn of the 20th century a number of states and municipalities had enacted legislation banning the sale of cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Particularly worrisome to the nation’s legislators was the sight of the fair sex ingesting the smoke of the demon weed.

On January 21, 1908 New York City passed an ordinance, the Sullivan Act, forbidding women from smoking in public. The very next day, a female scofflaw named Katie Mulcahey was arrested after striking a match against the wall of a house and lighting a cigarette.

The officer protested, “Madame, you mustn’t! What would Alderman Sullivan say?”

“But I am,” Mulcahey replied, “and don’t know.”

In night court she stated her views to the judge, who was, of course, a man: “I’ve got as much right to smoke as you have. never heard of this new law, and don’t want to hear about it. No man shall dictate to me.”

The shameless hussy was found guilty and fined $5.00 but she refused to pay and was thrown in jail for her impudence.

The Sullivan Act lasted only two weeks before being vetoed by Mayor George McClellan. Smoking attracted women as a symbol of liberation and sophistication, especially in the post-World War I period. Here is a picture of my parents in the late 1940s. What makes my mother’s cigarette addiction so important is that she was a recovering tuberculosis patient with only one lung.

January 19

1095 Death of a saintly bishop

The Norman Conquest of England which began in 1066 was supported by the papacy partly out of a desire to reform the English Church which was seen as backward and corrupt by the reform movement in Rome. All of the Anglo-Saxon bishops except one were replaced by continental clerics such as Lanfranc, the new Italian Archbishop of Canterbury. The single bishop left in place was Wulstan, aka Wulfstan, (1008-95) of Worcester. Robert Chambers explains why:

St. Wulstan was the last saint of the Anglo-Saxon Church, the link between the old English Church and hierarchy and the Norman. He was a monk, indeed, and an ascetic; still, his vocation lay not in the school or cloister, but among the people of the market-place and the village, and he rather dwelt on the great broad truths of the Gospel than followed them into their results. Though a thane’s son, a series of unexpected circumstances brought him into the religious profession, and he became prior of a monastery at Worcester. Born at Long Itchington, in Warwickshire, and educated at the monasteries of Evesham and Peterborough, the latter one of the richest houses and the most famous schools in England, he was thoughtful above his years, and voluntarily submitted to exercises and self-denials from which other children were excused. To Wulstan, the holy monk, the proud Earl Harold once went thirty miles out of his way, to make his confession to him, and beg his prayers. He was a man of kind yet blunt and homely speech, and delighted in his devotional duties; the common people looked upon him as their friend, and he used. to sit at the church door listening to complaints, redressing wrongs, helping those who were in trouble, and giving advice, spiritual and temporal.

Every Sunday and great festival he preached to the people: his words seemed to be the voice of thunder, and he drew together vast crowds, wherever he had to dedicate a church. As an example of his practical preaching, it is related that, in reproving the greediness which was a common fault of that day, Wulstan confessed that a savory roast goose which was preparing for his dinner, had once so taken up his thoughts, that he could not attend to the service he was performing, but that he had punished himself for it, and given up the use of meat in consequence.

At length, in 1062, two Roman cardinals came to Worcester, with Aldred the late bishop, now Archbishop of York; they spent the whole Lent at the Cathedral monastery, where Wulstan was prior, and they were so impressed with his austere and hardworking way of life, that partly by their recommendation, as well as the popular voice at Worcester, Wulstan was elected to the vacant bishopric. He heard of this with sorrow and vexation, declaring that he would rather lose his head than be made a bishop; but he yielded to the stern rebuke of an aged hermit, and received the pastoral staff from the hands of Edward the Confessor. The Normans, when they came, thought him, like his church, old-fashioned and homely; but they admired his unworldly and active life, which was not that of study and thoughtful retirement, but of ministering to the common people, supplying the deficiencies of the parochial clergy, and preaching. He rode on horse-back, with his retinue of clerks and monks, through his diocese, repeating the Psalter, the Litanies, and the office for the dead; his chamberlain always had a purse ready, and ‘no one ever begged of Wulstan in vain.’ In these progresses he came into personal contact with all his flock, high and low—with the rude crowds, beggars and serfs, craftsmen and labourers, as well as with priests and nobles. But everything gave way to his confirming children — from sunrise to sunset he would go without tasting food, blessing batch after hatch of the little ones.

Wulstan was a great church builder: he took care that on each of his own manors there should be a church, and he urged other lords to follow his example. He rebuilt the cathedral of his see, and restored the old ruined church of Westbury. When his new cathedral was ready for use, the old one built by St. Oswald was to be demolished; Wulstan stood in the churchyard looking on sadly and silently, but at last burst into tears at this destruction, as he said, of the work of saints, who knew not how to build fine churches, but knew how to sacrifice themselves to God, whatever roof might be over them.

It cannot be said of Wulstan that he was much of a respecter of persons. He had rebuked and warned the headstrong Harold, and he was not less bold before his more imperious successor. At a council in Winchester, he bluntly called upon William to restore to the see some lands which he had seized. He had to fight a stouter battle with Lanfranc, who, ambitious of deposing him for incapacity and ignorance, in a synod held before the king, called upon the bishop to deliver up his pastoral staff and ring; when, according to the legend, Wulstan drove the staff into the stone of the tomb of the Confessor, where it remained fast imbedded, notwithstanding the efforts of the Bishop of Rochester, Lanfranc, and the king himself, to remove it, which, however, Wulstan easily did, and thenceforth was reconciled to Lanfranc; and they subsequently cooperated in destroying a slave trade which had long been carried on by merchants of Bristol with Ireland.

Wulstan outlived William and Lanfranc. He passed his last Lent with more than usual solemnity, on his last Maundy washing the feet and clothes of the poor, bestowing alms and ministering the cup of ‘charity;’ then supplying them, as they sat at his table, with shoes and victuals; and finally reconciling penitents, and washing the feet of his brethren of the convent. On Easter-day, he again feasted with the poor.

At Whitsuntide following, being taken ill, he prepared for death, but he lingered till the first day of the new year, when he finally took to his bed. He was laid so as to have a view of the altar of a chapel, and thus he followed the psalms which were sung. On the 19th of January 1095, at midnight, he died in the eighty-seventh year of his age, and the thirty-third of his episcopate. Contrary to the usual custom, the body was laid out, arranged in the episcopal vestments and crosier, before the high altar, that the people of Worcester might look once more on their good bishop. His stone coffin is, to this day, shewn in the presbytery of the cathedral, the crypt and early Norman portions of which are the work of Wnlstan.

If your interest in Wulstan has not been exhausted, I direct you to the splendid A Clerk of Oxford site where you will find more on the saint: https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2015/01/st-wulfstan-of-worcester-sole-survivor.html

January 18

The festival of St. Peter’s Chair, was once annually celebrated at Rome on this day, but was removed from the General Calendar by Pope Paul VI – only dissident anti-Vatican II Catholics keep the feast now. Lady Morgan in her 1821 book of travels, Italy, described the festivities as they occurred in the 19th century.

The splendidly dressed troops that line the nave of the cathedral, the variety and richness of vestments which clothe the various church and lay dignitaries, abbots, priests, canons, prelates, cardinals, doctors, dragoons, senators, and grenadiers, which march. in procession, complete, as they proceed up the vast space of this wondrous temple, a spectacle nowhere to be equalled within the pale of European civilization. In the midst of swords and crosiers, of halberds and crucifixes, surrounded by banners, and bending under the glittering tiara of threefold power, appears the aged, feeble, and worn-out pope, borne aloft on men’s shoulders, in a chair of crimson and gold, and environed by slaves, (for such they look,) who waft, from plumes of ostrich feathers mounted on ivory wands, a cooling gale, to refresh his exhausted frame, too frail for the weight of such honours. All fall prostrate, as he passes up the church to a small choir and throne, temporarily erected beneath the chair of St. Peter. A solemn service is then performed, hosannas arise, and royal votarists and diplomatic devotees parade the church, with guards of honour and running footmen, while English gentlemen and ladies mob and scramble, and crowd and bribe, and fight their way to the best places they can obtain.

At the extremity of the great nave behind the altar, and mounted upon a tribune designed or ornamented by Michael Angelo [it was actually Bernini], stands a sort of throne, composed of precious materials, and supported by four gigantic figures. A glory of seraphim, with groups of angels, sheds a brilliant light upon its splendours. This throne enshrines the real, plain, worm-eaten, wooden chair, on which St. Peter, the prince of the apostles, is said to have pontificated; more precious than all the bronze, gold, and gems, with which it is hidden, not only from impious, but from holy eyes, and which once only, in the flight of ages, was profaned by mortal inspection.

The throne itself, underneath all that zany baroque decoration, is said to have been given to Pope John VIII in 875; when it was inspected in the 1970s scientists pronounced it to be no older than the sixth century. This is how the chair looked when photographed by itself in 1867.

January 16

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1556

Accession of Philip II of Spain.

“I will not be the king of heretics”, proclaimed Philip Habsburg (1527-98), in his time King of Spain, Portugal, England and Ireland (briefly), the Netherlands, southern Italy, North and South America, trading ports in Africa, India and East Asia and the Philippine Islands. Ruler of a vastly wealthy empire, he spent his country into bankruptcy trying to exterminate Protestantism in Europe and drive Muslim navies out of the Mediterranean.

Born the son of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who confronted Martin Luther, Philip was raised in Spain as a devoted Catholic. He was highly intelligent, cautious and suspicious, growing to manhood during the European religious wars when he did his utmost to confront Protestantism in all his realms and among his neighbours as well. After his first marriage to a Portuguese princess ended in her death, Philip was persuaded in 1554 to marry a cousin, Mary I of England, despite her being a decade older than he. The marriage produced no children, engendered a good deal of anti-Spanish sentiment and cost England its last remaining continental possession, Calais. When Mary died in 1558 Philip’s authority in England ended; his courtship of Mary’s sister Elizabeth was deftly avoided by the new queen.

In 1555 Charles V retired and divided his holdings between his brother Ferdinand and Philip. Ferdinand received the Holy Roman Empire and promptly agreed to a religious truce with German Protestants; Philip received the rest of Charles’s lands and vowed to wipe out Protestantism wherever he found it. This resulted in expensive wars in France where he sided with the Catholic League against the Valois kings, against England ( a war fought largely at sea), and against the Dutch Calvinist rebels and their German supporters. In the Mediterranean Philip’s navies battled Islamic pirate lords along the Barbary coast and their Turkish masters, Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors.

Philip failed to halt Protestantism in either England, against which he launched three great armadas, or the Netherlands where war raged for 80 years. He was a proponent of state-sponsored assassination and offered bounties for the death of his heretic enemies. His policy in France was not a total failure; though the Catholic League was defeated, the Protestant victor Henry of Navarre felt obliged to convert to Catholicism. Philip’s war on Islam was as unrelenting. At home he forced the descendants of Moorish converts to leave Spain, rendering the country purer in religion but poorer economically. In the Mediterranean, he lost some North African holdings but contributed to significant Turkish losses at Malta (1565) and Lepanto (1571). All this was accomplished at enormous financial cost to Spain which began a century of decline after Philip’s death.

January 12

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1700

The death of a Canadian saint.

The colony of New France was in a perilous state in the middle of the seventeenth century. A number of private corporations had failed to establish a secure position in the St Lawrence valley; few colonists were attracted to the harsh landscape; infant mortality was high; and attacks by native tribes discouraged settlement. To this tenuous toehold came Frenchwoman Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1653.

Marguerite had been recruited to the colony by Paul Chomedey de Maissoneuve, the Governor of Ville-Marie (later Montreal) who brought her, 15 girls searching for husbands, and 100 settler-soldiers to hold the little fort. It was Marguerite’s job to care for the marriageable women, find suitable mates for them and instruct children. A cloistered community of nuns was unsuitable for the situation so Marguerite developed a community of secular sisters, a dangerous innovation in the eyes of some church leaders. She built the town’s first church, set up a school in a stable and recruited women to form the Congregation Notre-Dame which would teach the children of colonists and natives across the colony. She journeyed to France several times on recruitment missions and efforts to keep her community from being forced to accept a lifestyle of seclusion. Marguerite was successful in all these efforts and when she died in 1700 she had the reputation of a saint. She was officially canonized in 1982 by Pope John Paul II.

January 7

St Lucian’s Day

It’s about time we honoured another obscure saint. Today it is St. Lucian, surnamed of Antioch, born at Samosata, in Syria. He lost his parents whilst very young; and being come to the possession of his estate, which was very considerable, he distributed all among the poor. He became a great proficient in rhetoric and philosophy, and applied himself to the study of the holy scriptures under one Macarius at Edessa. Convinced of the obligation annexed to the character of priesthood, which was that of devoting himself entirely to the service of God and the good of his neighbour, he did not content himself with inculcating the practice of virtue both by word and example; he also undertook to purge the scriptures, that is, both the Old and New Testament, from the several faults that had crept into them, either by reason of the inaccuracy of transcribers, or the malice of heretics. Some are of opinion, that as to the Old Testament, he only revised it, by comparing different editions of the Septuagint: others contend, that he corrected it upon the Hebrew text, being well versed in that language. Certain, however, it is that St. Lucian’s edition of the scriptures was much esteemed, and was of great use to St. Jerome.

St. Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, says, that Lucian remained some years separated from the Catholic communion at Antioch, under three successive bishops, namely, Domnus, Timeus, and Cyril. If it was for too much favouring Paul of Samosata, condemned at Antioch in the year 269, he must have been deceived, for want of a sufficient penetration into the impiety of that dissembling heretic. It is certain, at least, that he died in the Catholic communion; which also appears from a fragment of a letter written by him to the church of Antioch, and still extant in the Alexandrian Chronicle. Though a priest of Antioch, we find him at Nicomedia, in the year 303, when Dioclesian first published his edicts against the Christians. He there suffered a long imprisonment for a the faith; for the Paschal Chronicle quotes these words from a letter which he wrote out of his dungeon to Antioch: “All the martyrs salute you. I inform you that the pope Anthimus (bishop of Nicomedia) has finished his course of martyrdom.’ This happened in 303. Yet Eusebius informs us, that St. Lucian did not arrive himself at the crown of martyrdom till after the death of St. Peter of Alexandria, in 311, so that he seems to have continued nine years in prison.

At length he was brought before the governor, or, as the acts intimate, the emperor himself, for the words which Eusebius uses, may imply either. On his trial, he presented to the judge an excellent apology for the Christian faith. Being remanded to prison, an order was given that no food should be allowed him; but, when almost dead with hunger, dainty meats that had been offered to idols, were set before him, which he would not touch. It was not in itself unlawful to eat of such meats, as St. Paul teaches, except where it would give scandal to the weak, or when it was exacted as an action of idolatrous superstition, as was the case here. Being brought a second time before the tribunal, he would give no other answer to all the questions put to him, but this: “I am a Christian.” He repeated the same whilst on the rack, and he finished his glorious course in prison, either by famine, or according to St. Chrysostom, by the sword. His acts relate many of his miracles, with other, particulars; as that, when bound and chained down on his back in prison, he consecrated the divine mysteries upon his own breast, and communicated the faithful that were present: this we also read in Philostorgius, the Arian historian. St. Lucian suffered at Nicomedia, where Maximinus II. resided.

January 6

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Epiphany

From the Greek epiphania, or manifestation. Celebrated in both Eastern and Western churches on January 6, Epiphany marks a number of important appearances or manifestations: the arrival of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, the miracle at Cana and the Feeding of the 5000.

Its first appearance seems to have been in the second century A.D. among the Basilidean heretics of Alexandria who believed that Jesus did not become divine until his baptism which they claim had taken place on January 6. Though this idea of a late-acquired divinity was rejected by orthodox Christianity, some churches seem to have used the date to celebrate Christ’s earthly birth — an epiphany of a different kind. When in the fourth century Rome adopted December 25 as the day to celebrate the Nativity the Western churches’ Epiphany emphasis shifted to focus on the Magi while in the East stress was placed on the baptism. The period between these two important holy dates became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Epiphany became an official holiday in the Eastern Roman Empire, marked by a ban on chariot racing and attending games in the arena and by ceremonies of blessing the waters. At these ceremonies the emperor would drink the waters three times to the cry of “The emperor drinks!” The blessing of the waters takes place even today in Orthodox denominations. A priest will bless a body of water, either inside, or by a lake, river or sea and the faithful take it home where it will be used to sprinkle on houses, barns and fields to ensure prosperity for the coming year. In some places the priest will throw a cross into the water and divers will race to be the one to recover it.

In the West, Epiphany was a day to celebrate the visitation of the Magi or the Three Kings as they became known. Religious services honouring the Magi gradually turned into dramas held outside of the church such as The Play of Herod. As returning Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought back stories of the fabulous east, fascination with the Magi grew — cities held processions honouring the Kings and carols retelling their journeys were sung. (The remnants of these customs are the Star Boys and their January pilgrimages from door to door.) Epiphany came to be a time all across Europe for popular celebrations marked by eating a cake and gift-giving.

The custom of the King’s Cake, Twelfth Night Cake, Dreikönigskuchen, gâteau des rois, etc., can be traced back to the thirteenth century. A bean or a pea or a coin was baked into the cake and the lucky finder was named king or queen of the party and could direct others to do his bidding for the evening. Though the tradition lingers in much of Europe (as well as French America) the custom in England was displaced to December 25 where it became the Christmas cake. In medieval France it was customary to put a piece of the cake aside for the poor or to collect money from the rich for their share of the cake and use the money for a charity.

Because the Christmas season ends in many parts of the world on January 6, Twelfth Night became a time of raucous celebration, associated with masking, mumming, drinking and social inversion. This misrule may have been a carry-over to some extent from the riotousness of the pagan Kalends. In Byzantium for example church councils had to legislate against the dancing and transvestism that went on in early January. During the reign of Michael III (842-67) the emperor and his court went so far as to use the occasion to mock the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Mass itself. Mock coronations and consecrations become common in medieval Europe with clerical hijinks, cross-dressing, noise and laughter the order of the day on Twelfth Night.

To commemorate the visit of the Magi who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus, Epiphany became the day for giving gifts, especially to children. In the Spanish-speaking world the eve of the day of Los Tres Rejes Magos is when the three wise men pass through on their way to Bethlehem and leave presents for kids who, in turn, leave out snacks for the kings and their camels. In Spain their Majesties and their attendants can be seen processing through the city streets on January 5 in great splendour. In Italy the night of January 5 sees the visit of the Befana (the name itself is a corruption of Epiphania), an old lady who refused to spare time from her housekeeping to accompnay the Three Kings on their journey. She soon repented of her decision and tried to join the Magi but has never succeeded to this day. She therefore visits each home in search of the Christ Child and leaves presents for the little ones that she finds sleeping there.

In parts of the Middle East there is a charming story about this night and another gift-bringer. On the Night of Destiny, when the Magi first journeyed to Bethlehem the palm trees bent down to show them the way — as they have done, says legend, every January 5 since. Once a mule was tied to a tree on such a night and when the trees sprang back to their ordinary posture the beast was whipped high into the branches. To mark this miracle the Mule was made the gift-bringer in Lebanon where doors are left open for him to bring in the presents and where hay and water are set out to refresh him.

Epiphany is also the time for houses to be blessed for the coming year. A priest will recite a prayer, sprinkle the house with holy water and cense the home and barn. The initials of the Magi and the number of the year are chalked on the door frame as in “20 K+M+B 15”. Even the chalk can be first consecrated with a Ceremonial Blessing of the Chalk.

Just as Epiphany serves as a time for houses to be blessed and evil forces expelled from them, so is January 6 the date for driving demons out of the whole town. In parts of Switzerland boys go about on Twelfth Night to make noise with horns and whips to drive away nasty wood spirits.  In the eastern Alps, the Berchtenlaufen ceremony sees 200-300 boys with masks, cowbells, whips and weapons shoot up the sky and make and make as much noise as possible.  In Eschenloe  in Upper Bavaria, three women with bags over their heads go house to house carrying a chain, a rake and a broom. They knock on doors with the chain, scrape the ground with the rake and sweep with the broom, all to clear away evil.

In England it has been the custom since the Middle Ages for the reigning king or queen to imitate the giving of gifts which the Magi brought. On January 6 during the Epiphany service in the Chapel Royal at Saint James’s Palace two Gentleman Ushers, acting on behalf on the monarch, bring forth silken bags containing gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gold is in the form of twenty-five gold sovereigns which, after the service, is changed into ordinary currency and donated to the poor. This presentation used to be carried out by the ruler himself until the madness of King George III prevented his participation; since then servants have carried out the custom by proxy.