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:
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:
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:
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.