Today the Vallejo Times-Herald wondered whether “Three Kings Day” had been forgotten by Mexican-Americans, taking it for granted that the rest of us didn’t even care.
I don’t know what Epiphany and the Wise Men do for you, but for me they call up memories of a childhood in New York, of happy Christmases past, of a Christmas Eve blizzard, of the smell of mittens wet with caked snow drying on a radiator, of Christmas carols sung in the living room, of decorating the tree, of setting out those Lionel tracks, and, best of all, setting up the creche.
Jesus was always there in the center of the manger…but oh so tiny and hard to see in the shadows. The shepherds were close by, but kind of dull in their gray robes. Like my sister and, later, my brother, I was most entranced by the three Wise Men – they were always three. They were, after all, KINGS…or so I thought. They were resplendent in red and purple robes and golden turbans. And, best of all, they had camels…not your garden variety animals, but the kind you could only find in the circus or in the Bronx Zoo. Mary Ann, Larry, and I took great care in finding a suitably prominent place for the Magi, though I never remember calling out to my parents the way one child once did: “Where should we put the Wise Guys!?” For us, they were the colorful, flamboyant stars of our crèche set. They had to be seen…and admired.
Epiphany was an especially important part of my New York Christmases. We German-Americans called it “Little Christmas,” the last of the twelve days of Christmas, the closing scene of the story. It was the day when we ritually – without fail – took down the tree and “put Christmas away.”
But New York was a very diverse place. Across the hallway of our apartment building lived Ira Balogh, a Jewish-American. From him I learned about menorahs, lattke, and dreidels. And, I learned that, when his family started lighting their menorah, Christmas was not too far behind. And upstairs lived Patty Panos, a Greek-American, who tried to explain – not very successfully - why she celebrated Christmas so late.
The Orthodox, I do remember, had a very strange way of celebrating Epiphany. We’re talking January in New York, here! A crowd of Russians would gather at the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan where an ornately robed and mitered bishop would toss a strangely shaped cross into the harbor. Several pasty white and overweight men in black speedos and rubber shower caps would then dive into the frigid green waters to fetch the cross. The “winner” wrapped in several woolen blankets would then kneel before the bishop to receive his blessing. Go figure!
I’m sure there are still kids – and overweight Russian men – who are carrying on these traditions this week in New York. For me, however, they are now decades and thousands of miles away.
But the nice thing about Christmas is that it is never-ending, constantly repeating…and renewing, and, wherever Christians – cultural or practicing - gather, always the same. The Wise Men got their same prominent place in my crèche this year. And, once again, I dutifully took down my now tiny tree today…but not without remembering those Christmases long ago and just gone by and reflecting on their timeless message of hope and joy.
As I pack those boxes in the garage tonight, I feel compelled to pause and, looking back…and forward, wish you all a very Happy New Year. We’ve got lots to do. Let’s get on with it!