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Farewell to the Holidays

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Design drawing for stained glass window showing Presentation to Magi. J. & R. Lamb Studios, designer. 1984. LC Prints and Photographs Division, Lamb Design Collection.

On this snowy January day, I’d like to wish the readers of Folklife Today a happy end to the holiday season.  Many people take down their Christmas decorations immediately after the day itself, and others use New Year’s Day as the end of their holiday. But among many communities, the Christmas season culminates after Twelfth Night with Epiphany, which is observed on January 6.

Traditionally the day on which the Magi from the East were said to have come to visit the infant Jesus, January 6 is also sometimes called “Three Kings’ Night.”  January 6 was also the date celebrated as Christmas by many Eastern Orthodox and some Catholic denominations, and it is still occasionally referred to as “Old Christmas.”

So, to say farewell to the Holiday season this year, let’s take a look at some of the Library’s treasures surrounding this holiday.

Among Catholics of Spanish and Portuguese descent, Epiphany was an important holiday, and we find traces of it among our Luso-Hispanic collections. From December 1938 through April 1939, Sidney Robertson Cowell collected a considerable amount of Portuguese music in Oakland, California.  On March 8, she recorded Portuguese music from a group of friends from the Azores,  who included Alice Lemos Avila (vocals and English guitar), Elzira Silva (vocals), Antonio Medeiros (vocals and triangle), and Albert Avila (vocals).

Cowell recorded two Epiphany carols from the group. On the first recording, she made special notes about the triangle, which was typically used for caroling:

The ferrinho is a heavy iron triangle, associated particularly with carolling in the Azores. Mr. Medeiros borrowed one last New Year’s Eve, but we were unable to record the carols then. For this recording he made himself one the night before.

Hear the song in the player below:


On the second Epiphany carol, Cowell took the following notes:

A New Year’s greeting song, sung by carollers. First verse is improvised; true melody begins with refrain. Comparatively modern tune, 4 plus 4, but last phrase 3 plus 5. Solo voice seems forced at beginning. Charming ferrinho [triangle].

Hear it below:


Collecting in New Mexico and Colorado in 1940, the pioneering ethnographer Juan B. Rael was interested in old celebrations of the Hispano culture he studied.  In his notes, Rael referred to Epiphany as:

Another feast that used to be observed by the performance of a religious folk play…. The play acted was Los Reyes Magos, the Magi. […] As far as I have been able to ascertain, it has not been performed in southern Colorado or northern New Mexico during the last thirty years.

However, in August, on his last day of recording, he came across the 70-year-old singer Samuel Martinez Y Lavadí, who remembered the play and sang some of its songs for Rael.  Hear him below.


Epiphany was an important day for musical celebrations in other Hispanic areas as well.  We sure wish someone had recorded the music at the Epiphany party in a tenant farmer’s home in the sugar country near Guanica, Puerto Rico in 1942, when FSA photographer Jack Delano took a series of terrific photographs, including this one:

Guanica, Puerto Rico (vicinity). At a Three Kings’ eve party in a tenant farmer’s home in the sugar country. Photo by Jack Delano, 1942.

Like Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Byzantine Christians also historically celebrated Epiphany.  In 1939, Alton Morris recorded a traditional Greek liturgical song for Epiphany from Professor George Anastassiou, director of the Byzantine Choir of Tarpon Springs, Florida. Tarpon Springs, which had been settled by Greek sponge fishers in 1905, was almost entirely Greek at the time.  Although the audio is poor, I’ve included it for its historical interest, in the player below.


Orthodox ceremonies were also spectacular to see, as you can tell from a series of photographs of an Orthodox Epiphany ritual at the River Jordan, captured by the photography department of the American Colony in Jerusalem in 1937.  The ceremony included a procession down to the banks of the river, depicted in the photo below:

Epiphany Ceremony
River Jordan. Epiphany ceremony. Photo by the American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Dept., 1937. Prints and Photographs Division, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection.

After the procession, the group took a boat out into the water to engage in what the photographer called “Sanctifying the waters of the Jordan on Epiphany.”  Here’s another photo:

Ceremony 2
River Jordan. Epiphany ceremony. Photo by the American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Dept., 1937. Prints and Photographs Division, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection.

Finally, the celebration of Epiphany or “Old Christmas” left traces in Anglo-American culture as well.  In particular, some old Christmas songs contain references to Jesus being born on the 5th or 6th of January. The most famous of these is “The Cherry Tree Carol,” based on a story from an apocryphal gospel. At the link below, you can hear a Christmas radio show produced by Alan Lomax in 1940, starring Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives.  Near the end of the second segment, Ives sings “The Cherry Tree Carol,” and he and Guthrie comment on “Old Christmas” in the third segment. Ives closes out that segment with an unusual version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  Hear it at this link, courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity!

Of course, we’re all sorry to say goodbye to the holiday season.  But as the last of the twelve days of Christmas fades away, remember: holiday time will come again next year!  Until then, I hope you’ll keep reading and listening here at Folklife Today.

Comments (7)

  1. What beautiful pictures and great recordings! My mom’s family (episcopal) originally from Chattanooga celebrates the 12 days of Christmas (and my husband and I just took our tree down today). Yesterday my aunt posted on facebook 24 wise men arriving at the creches (3 magi x 8 creches). When I was a kid we would often see Amahl and the Night Visitors at a friend’s (presbyterian) church in NJ around epiphany. Old Christmas is past, but I still have my Christmas cards to send! That (procrastination) is another fine old family tradition…

  2. Thank you very much!

  3. Thanks for a typically well done and thorough presentation, illustrated with some wonderful examples. I fear that I must split one hair, however, concerning “Old Christmas.” As Alan Jabbour and I found in the southern US (and it is probably not limited to the South), the term has a bit of different spin and actually comes (or ought to come) one day earlier, January 5. Here is what we wrote in the booklet for the American Folklife Center recordings of the Hammons family of West Virginia (AFC L65-L66, alas long out of print): “England’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 meant an 11-day shift in dates from the old Julian year. Some people continued to celebrate Christmas on the old day by moving the holiday to January 5, although confusion of this date with Epiphany may account for the Hammonses’ tradition that Old Christmas falls 12 days after December 25.” The Julian to Gregorian shift also turns up when, for example, you sort out George Washington’s birthdate. (

    • Thanks, Carl. The situation with “Old Christmas” and Epiphany is complicated. In many versions of “The Cherry Tree Carol,” collected in both England and America, the date is January 6, and it is explicitly said in the ballad to be the birthday of Jesus. This is the case with a version collected by Josephine McGill in Kentucky in 1916, which cites the 6th of January. McGill, writing in 1916, also states that in some parts of Kentucky, Christmas was still celebrated on January 6, which she identifies as “Old Christmas.” January 6 is also identified as Old Christmas by Robert Chambers, the Scottish antiquarian, in his Book of Days, published in 1862. This suggests the “twelve days after Christmas” tradition (January 6) is much wider than the Hammons family, British as well as American, and quite old and well established.

      What you indicate, then, may be a discrepancy between the “official” culture, meaning the national authorities in England, which shifted the calendar 11 days and thus suggested that “Old Christmas” should be 11 days after Christmas, and vernacular British and Anglo-American culture, which observes “Old Christmas” 12 days after Christmas, on Epiphany. I think most folklorists wouldn’t immediately assume it was confusion that caused a discrepancy between official and vernacular culture. Quite often such discrepancies reflect the agency and preferences of ordinary people in creating their vernacular observances. In this case, what some people think happened is that in many areas of Europe, Epiphany was a more important vernacular celebration than Christmas, but Church authorities and national governments favored Christmas. When the Gregorian-Julian adjustment occurred, people continued celebrating Epiphany as they always had, but called it “Old Christmas” to keep it more in line with Church doctrine and national preferences. This would account for the vernacular tradition that “Old Christmas” is on January 6, reflected in the Hammonses’ tradition, the tradition McGill found in Kentucky, and many versions of “The Cherry Tree Carol.” It would also suggest that the confluence of Old Christmas and Epiphany was neither a coincidence based on the calendar nor a popular error, but in fact a reflection of the importance of the vernacular celebration of Epiphany.

      However, there is reason not to believe in the explanation that American “Old Christmas” falls on January 6 because of the shift from Julian to Gregorian calendars at all. It is a popular theory, but not a proven one. Many British sources mentioning “Old Christmas,” including Chambers, make no mention of the theory that the name derives from the shift between Julian and Gregorian calendars. Meanwhile, most of our American Christmas customs are German rather than British, and Anabaptists, too, celebrated Epiphany as “alt-Christtag,” or “Old Christmas,” on January 6; the name survives today primarily among the Amish.

      January 6 was one of the earliest dates celebrated for Christmas in many parts of the world, especially the eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, including the Holy Land. In these areas, Christmas was originally celebrated on January 6, even under the Julian calendar. Rome set its date for Christmas as December 25 near the end of the the third century, but much of the world continued to celebrate on January 6, creating in effect two Christmases, one older and one newfangled. The Greek-speaking eastern churches converted to the Roman custom of December 25 over the next hundred years. Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land took even longer to change, and seem to have celebrated the January 6 date until the middle of the sixth century. Certain eastern churches, including the Armenian church, maintained the very old January 6 Christmas tradition from the third century to the current day. They never celebrated Christmas on December 25, of either the Julian or the Gregorian calendars. Their celebration has always been on January 6 of whatever calendar they followed. As one of the oldest Christmas traditions, this date of January 6 has a good claim to be called “Old Christmas” completely independently of the Julian-Gregorian calendar shift.

      Interestingly, even after that shift, some Catholic and Orthodox churches continued to follow the Julian calendar, and the two calendars continued to drift further apart. So by 1916 (and still today) Julian December 25 actually falls on Gregorian January 7. This allows us to state correctly that “Old Christmas” falls on January 5 (according to English official culture), January 6 (according to vernacular culture in many parts of Europe and the U.S.), or January 7 (according to followers of the Julian calendar).

      The citation for the McGill article is:

      The Cherry-Tree Carol
      Josephine McGill
      The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 29, No. 112 (Apr. – Jun., 1916), pp. 293-294
      Article Stable URL:

  4. I have looked more carefully at Chambers and he includes an explanation of why Old Christmas used to be January 5, but came to be January 6: 1800 was not a Leap Year. Years that are divisible by 100 but not by 400 (so the most recent three were 1700, 1800, and 1900) are not Leap Years in the Gregorian calendar. This is an all-at-once adjustment for a drift of 3 days per 400 years. When this occurs, the Julian and Gregorian calendars grow one more day apart. So Julian Christmas was only Gregorian January 5 in Britain and America from 1752 until 1800. From 1801 to 1900 it was January 6. From 1901 it has been January 7 and will be so until 2100 since 2000 was divisible by 400 and thus a Leap Year. In Britain this was more than academic, because according to Chambers the Accounts of the Royal Treasury are reckoned on the old Julian Calendar. Thus Christmas dividends were due on Old Christmas (January 6) throughout the 19th Century.

    • That’s an interesting idea, Mysha! Of course, the corpus is very small; Bronson lists two versions with “fifth day of January,” one with “sixth day of January,” and one with “sixteenth of January.” We could just be seeing the usual variations of oral tradition.

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