Tuesday, 8 January 2013

An epiphany, of sorts

A morning bus ride through Edinburgh early in January is a  melancholy journey. The streets are lined with dying Christmas trees stripped of their finery and exiled forever, lying in the gutters in various attitudes of abandonment like derelicts or fallen soldiers.  In Princes Street gardens all the bright baubles --the markets, the skating ring, the funfare--are disappearing, put away for another year.  The giant wheel is being dismantled like a cine-film run backwards—evolution in reverse.  Everywhere the lights are going out, coming down (even at The Dome on George Street, where Christmas starts before Halloween).  It is as if that interloper—joy—is being sucked out of the city as it goes on the wagon, cuts its calories,  hunches its shoulders against the long, dark weeks to come--suffering being the default setting of good Calvinists everywhere. 
Not that there isn’t a bit of masochism on Twelfth Night in other places as well—mostly to do with cold water and mostly in eastern Europe, where men either jump into lakes to try to retrieve a wooden cross, which will free them of evil spirits for the year (something that could catch on in  Edinburgh—a good ducking in Duddingstone Loch for parking wardens perhaps ) or dance in an icy river in the belief that it will ensure their health in the coming months--a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ pass as well as good clean fun.   
Water also plays a part (not unsurprisingly) in Venice where men dress up as Befana – an old woman who delivers gifts to children on Epiphany Eve-- and race each other down the Grand Canal.  Meanwhile, in Germany half a million carollers are out collecting money for children’s aid projects (there is also pastry), while in Hungary peasants (frankly I am surprised at the Guardian, calling people ‘peasants’) have their horses blessed before a race (I wonder if the priest is ever accused of nobbling a horse, blessings-wise...).  In Prague they stick to tradition with a march re-enacting the Epiphany journey of the three magi carrying their gifts to the manger in Bethlehem—complete with real camels (camels figure in Poland too, where there is cake as well).   In the Philippines the kings leave a gift in your shoes (and in Argentina, where you leave grass and a glass of water for the camels to re-fuel).
It is a feast day in many countries, with sweets and presents a common theme. There is cake in France and Belgium, Macedonia, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Lativia , Poland and New Orleans.  In Malta it’s a school holiday (and I daresay there is cake involved as well).   In Britain, we seem to have forgotten there ever was cake, other than the soiled, stale remains of the Christmas leftovers.
I think it says something that for much of the world Epiphany is a celebration while in the UK it is associated with bad luck.  If we don’t get those decorations down by Twelfth Night calamity will follow us for the rest of the year.   In other cultures it is an opportunity to be blessed; for us it is a date that requires a risk assessment.  
The sensible people of Guadaloupe deal with January by making Epiphany the first day of Carnival rather than the last day of Christmas.   Admittedly, with their Caribbean climate it probably feels like there is more to celebrate, but when I was walking home in the early hours of New Year’s Day I heard a blackbird singing its heart out at the corner of Dundas Street and Henderson Row.  I have been told the misguided bird was simply confused by the streetlights, but I prefer to think that blackbirds are trying to tell us something;  that in the bleak midwinter, perhaps the best way to deal with the dark is to sing (especially if there's cake) 


  1. Lovely post, as always.

    Re: “I wonder if the priest is ever accused of nobbling a horse, blessings-wise...”

    One day George was betting on the ponies losing his shirt, when he noticed a priest who had stepped out onto the track and blessed the forehead of one of the horses lining up for the 4th race. Lo and behold, this horse (a very long shot) won the race.


George was most interested to see what the priest did in the next race. Sure enough, he watched the priest step out onto the track as the 5th race horses lined up, and placed his blessing on the forehead of one of the horses.

    George made a beeline for the window and placed a small bet on the horse. Again, though another long shot, the horse won. 

George collected his winnings and anxiously waited to see which horse the priest bestowed his blessing on for the 6th race.

    The priest showed, blessed a horse. George bet on it and won! 

George was elated. As the day went on, the priest continued blessing one of the horses and it always came in first.

    George began to pull in some serious money and by the last race, he knew his wildest dreams were going to come true. He made a quick stop at the bank and withdrew every penny he owned, and awaited the priest's blessing that would tell him which horse to place the bet on.

    True to his pattern, the priest stepped out onto the track before the last race and blessed not only the forehead, but also the eyes, ears and hooves of one of the horses. George placed his bet -- every cent he owned -- and watched the horse drop dead on the track on the final turn. George was dumbfounded! 

    He made his way to the track and when he found the priest, he demanded, "What happened, Father? All day you blessed horses and they won. The last race, you bless a horse and he drops dead during the race. Now I've lost my life savings thanks to you!" 

    The priest nodded wisely and said, "You're not Catholic, are you?

    "No," answered George, but what difference does that make?"

    "Well," explained the priest, "if you were Catholic, you'd know the difference 

between a simple blessing and the Last Rites."

    1. Now that's a story that made me smile--thanks Busboy (and Happy New Year).