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)