There are several meanings for epiphany. According to my trusty American Heritage Student Dictionary, one is “a sudden understanding or perception by means of intuition.” Also, “A Christian feast traditionally held on January 6 that in the Western Church celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus and in the Eastern Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus.” It’s when the three kings finally made it to visit the miracle child. It’s also the season of “growing light” time and a time for renewal, the beginning of a new year. Depending upon tradition, it’s also Twelfth Night and the twelfth day of Christmas. After years of fighting faith and struggling to embrace religion, while feeling comfortable with spirituality, I’m trying to find the steadfastness I enjoyed in childhood. I’m seeking Epiphany.
As a child in church, I remember the “burning of the greens,” another celebration of Epiphany. It was a favorite ritual and gave joy in a time of the year that felt grey and full of letdown after the holiday hustle and bustle. Almost like a federal holiday celebrated on the nearest Monday, the Sunday closest to January 6th is usually celebrated as Epiphany. For the burning of the greens, it was the Sunday night potluck dinner at church and the time when we all gathered to take down the Christmas decorations. In some years, there was actual burning of the greens, with the Christmas tree, by this time dry and cracking, giving its last warmth in an aroma-filled fire. I bet there aren’t many churches (or anyone for that matter) burning their Christmas trees, but lots of people are putting the decorations away in the bittersweet resolution of a new year.
I love thinking about the journey into light as the Earth moves to the first point of Aries, the equinox, and longer days. Early January can be such a dreary time, but I love the practice of ritual. Yesterday, I spent my day alone celebrating my own Epiphany. After a Sunday morning swim lesson at the rec center, I came home to wash out the chlorine and then cuddled up in a purple t-shirt and purple plaid flannel pajama pants. Quietly, I pulled out the box for ornaments and the bag for the tree. Slowly and carefully I took down the ornaments. I remembered Christmases past as I looked through them. The red and green felt stocking with my name in black permanent marker that I first brought home from pre-school as a three-year-old; handmade ornaments from my aunt Charlotte when we exchanged ornaments every year with my cousins, marking the years through childhood; a wood-shaving snowflake ornament from Germany given by my godmother Susan; handfuls of ornaments handmade and lovingly chosen by my mother who helps mark the time with memories behind the decorations; colored glass ornaments that look like old school Christmas lights, chosen by me to fill in the gaps with my stabs at building an adult life. There’s a life of stories and symbols on the tree: angels, birds, states, snowflakes, stars. I can remember when I received some of the ornaments as gifts and can recall years of digging them out of boxes and tissue paper and hanging them on the tree.
I took down the crèche, the mass-produced soldier nutcrackers, and the brass angel candle holder from the mantel. I stood up on my tiptoes and stretched for the chain of the green glass star, hanging from the ceiling, that catches the light in front of the living room window. Pulling out the step stool, I followed the ceiling wood beam and stripped the green boughs of garland, catching the hidden thumbtacks mid-stretch. A fake evergreen wreath, 12 shiny red ball decorations, and a metal wreath holder I removed from the front door. I shook out the forest green velvet tree skirt and zipped it into the bag packed with the tree and wreathe, looking like a red ski bag waiting for adventure. Each ornament I packed in years-ago newspapers and wrapping paper remnants from Christmas gifts opened and received. Very carefully, I fit them snugly into the light blue box, the lid snapped on for another year of age and storage and gathered dust and memories.
Taking down the tree is the reverse of preparing for the holidays. It’s about stripping away the adornment and celebrating with a clean slate. Epiphany, celebrating light and the meaning after the holidays. In my rocky spiritual journey, it’s about turning toward the sun and the Son. Remembering and creating ritual. Embracing and recognizing struggle. Finding peace. Seeking epiphany. If epiphany is about understanding, it’s my way to look for and find meaning in everyday life. Moving towards light and enlightenment. It’s also the simple act of putting away.