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Musical Musings: Christmas


Transcribed by Robert H. Sarkissian

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia. The liturgical reforms which have occurred since this article was written have altered the format for the Divine Office, although the present antiphons still reflect a tri-fold nature for the feast: the coming of the Magi, the baptism in the Jordan and the wedding at Cana.

Known also under the following names: (1) ta epiphania, or he epiphanios, sc. hemera (rarely he epiphaneia: though, eg. in Athanasius, he somatike epiphaneia occurs); theophaneia: dies epiphaniarum; festivitas declarationis, manifestationis; apparitio; acceptio. (2) hemera ton photon: dies luminum; dies lavacri. (3) phagiphania, Bethphania; etc. (4) Festum trium regum: whence the Dutch Drie-koningendag Danish Hellig-tre-kongersdag, etc. (5) Twelfth Day, Swedish Trettondedag;, etc. -- The meaning of these names will be explained below. The feast was called among the Syrians denho (up-going), a name to be connected with the notion of rising light expressed in Luke 1:78. The name Epiphania survives in Befana, the great fair held at that season in Rome; it is difficult to say how closely the practice then observed of buying all sorts of earthenware images, combined with whistles, and representing some type of Roman life, is to be connected with the rather similar custom in vogue during the December feast of the Saturnalia. For the earthenware or pastry sigillaria then sold all over Rome, see Macrobius; s I x xxiv; II xlix; and Brand, "Pop. Ant." 180 183.


As its name suggests, the Epiphany had its origin in the Eastern Church. There exists indeed a homily of Hippolytus to which (in one manuscript only) is affixed the lemma ieis ta hagia theophaneia [not epiphaneia: Kellner]; it is throughout addressed to one about to be baptized, and deals only with the Sacrament of Baptism. It was edited by Bonwetsch and Achelis (Leipzig, 1897); Achelis and others consider it spurious. The first reference about which we can feel certain is in Clement (Strom. I xxi 45, in PG. VIII 888), who writes: "There are those, too, who over-curiously assign to the Birth of Our Saviour not only its year but its day, which they say to be on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. But the followers of Basilides celebrate the day of His Baptism too, spending the previous night in readings. And they say that it was the 15th of the month Tybi of the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar. And some say that it was observed the llth of the same month." Now, 11 and 15 Tybi are 6 and 10 January, respectively. The question at once arises; did these Basilidians celebrate Christ's Nativity and also His Baptism on 6 and 10 January, or did they merely keep His Baptism on these days, as well as His Nativity on another date? The evidence, if not Clement's actual words, suggests the former. It is certain that the Epiphany festival in the East very early admitted a more or less marked commemoration of the Nativity, or at least of the Angeli ad Pastores, the most striking "manifestation" of Christ's glory on that occasion. Moreover, the first actual reference to the ecclesiastical feast of the Epiphany (Ammianus Marcellinus XXI ii), in 361, appears to be doubled in Zonaras (XIII xi) by a reference to the same festival as that of Christ's Nativity. Moreover, Epiphanius (Haer. li 27 in PG. XLI 936) says that the sixth of January is hemera genethlion toutestin epiphanion, Christ's Birthday, ie. His Epiphany. Indeed, he assigns the Baptism to 12 Athyr, ie. 6 November. Again in chapters xxviii and xxix (PG. XLI 940 sq.) he asserts that Christ's Birth, ie. Theophany, occurred on 6 January, as did the miracle at Cana, in consequence of which water, in various places (Cibyra, for instance), was then yearly by a miracle turned into wine, of which he had himself drunk. It will be noticed, first, if Clement does not expressly deny that the Church celebrated the Epiphany in his time at Alexandria, he at least implies that she did not. Still less can we think that 6 January was then observed by the Church as holy. Moreover, Origen, in his list of festivals (Contra Celsum VIII xxii PG. XI 1549), makes no mention of it.

Owing no doubt to the vagueness of the name Epiphany, very different manifestations of Christ's glory and Divinity were celebrated in this feast quite early in its history, especially the Baptism, the miracle at Cana, the Nativity, and the visit of the Magi. But we cannot for a moment suppose that in the first instance a festival of manifestations in general was established, into which popular local devotion read specified meaning as circumstances dictated. It seems fairly clear that the Baptism was the event predominantly commemorated. The Apostolic Constitutions (VIII xxxiii; cf. V xii) mention it. Kellner quotes (cf. Selden, de Synedriis III xv 204 220) the oldest Coptic Calendar for the name Dies baptismi sanctificati, and the later for that of Immersio Domini as applied to this feast. Gregory of Nazianzus identifies, indeed, ta theophania with he hagia tou Christou gennesis, but this sermon (Orat. xxxviii in PG. XXXVI 312) was probably preached 25 Dec, 380; and after referring to Christ's Birth, he assures his hearers (PG. 329) that they shall shortly see Christ baptized. On 6 and 7 Jan, he preached orations xxxix and xl (PG. loc. cit.) and there declared (col.349) that the Birth of Christ and the leading of the Magi by a star having been already celebrated, the commemoration of His Baptism would now take place. The first of these two sermons is headed eis ta hagia phota, referring to the lights carried on that day to symbolize the spiritual illumination of baptism, and the day must carefully be distinguished from the Feast of the Purification, also called Festum luminum for a wholly different reason. Chrysostom, however, in 386 (see CHRISTMAS) preached "Hom. vi in B: Philogonium" where (PG. XLVIII 752) he calls the Nativity the parent of festivals, for, had not Christ been born, neither would He have been baptized, hoper esti ta theophania. This shows how loosely this title was used. (Cf. Chrys. "Hom. in Bapt. Chr." c.ii, in PG. XLIX 363; AD 387). Cassian (Coll. X 2 in PL. XLIX 820) says that even in his time (418-427) the Egyptian monasteries still celebrated the Nativity and Baptism on 6 January.

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