On January 6, many Christians around the world celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. It marks the end of the twelve days of Christmastide, and the end of the season. Indeed, Christmas is more than a day for the believers; it starts on December 1st, the first day of the advent, up to January 6, the day they believe Jesus was baptized and the Three Wise Men came to Bethlehem
From an important day in the Christian belief to a day for women in Ireland, January 6 holds a lot of different customs around the world, many linked to the Christian traditions.
Women’s Christmas in Ireland
In Ireland, January 6 is also known as Women’s Christmas, or Nollaig na mBan in Irish. What it means is quite simple: it is a day for men to stand up and do the chores while women enjoy themselves.
In 2021 it is not unusual for men and women to split chores around the house, but it was not always this way. Back in the old days, if a man was found helping, he was called an “auld woman” by others, deeply hurting his ego. Thankfully, minds have changed and most men do not need a day to be reminded to help, and this day became an excuse for women to visit their friends.
Nowadays, women around Ireland use this day as an excuse to reunite with their friends and family and go out to share a meal together.
El Dìa de (los) Reyes in Spain and Latin America
In Spain, and in some countries of Latin America, on the night before January 6, children leave out their shoes. They stuff them with straw, or hay, for the kings’ camels to eat, or dried fruits and sweet wines for the kings. In exchange, the kings leave small gifts and sweets for the children. One of the sweets often left is Carbòn Dulce, a sugar candy dyed black to look like coal.
In Spain, the town of Alcoi, Alicante is famous for the parade they have held since 1885. The parades represent the arrival of the kings: the children see them on their camels or carriages before going to sleep.
There is also a cake known as Roscón, Tortell de Reis in Catalan, and in Mexico as Rosca de reyes. It is shaped like a crown, and, like the French galette des rois or the Irish barm brack, a toy or bean is often hidden inside.
Wassailing in England
In the English tradition, the yule log burned the twelve days after Christmas, and the charcoal was left until next Christmas to protect the house from fire. Every year, people select a special log to burn during this night to keep the tradition of the Yule Log.
The night before the Epiphany is called the Twelfth Night. This night is often used for wassailing. Wassailing is part of two different traditions: one was an old pagan tradition from the South of England, in the apple cider region. It was a celebration in Autumn, singing and reciting incantations in an orchard to promote a good harvest. The second one is also referred to as Yule Singing and involves going door to door on the Twelfth night and offering a drink in exchange for gifts. A darker legend says that on this night people would go to rich houses and demand free food. When denied, the house was cursed, and sometimes vandalized. Similar traditions take place in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Nowadays, a wassail is also a drink, common at the end of the year and the door to door tradition was replaced by caroling. January 6 is the day the Christmas decorations are taken down, as it is considered bad luck to leave them past the Twelfth Day.
Shakespeare’s famous play Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, was written and first played for Epiphany’s celebrations.
La Befana in Italy
In Italy, January 6 is the day when La Befana comes to visit children around the country. She is often portrayed as an old woman on a broomstick entering the houses through the chimney. Her name is derived from the italian Epifania.
The legend says that the Befana is a witch that comes during the night between the 5th and the 6th of January to give toys and sweets to nice children and coal to naughty ones. She was asked to join the Wise Men on their journey, but she refused. She then regretted this decision and, because she could not bring a present to baby Jesus, she now brings presents to children in Italy that night.
La galette des rois in France
La galette des rois is a french tradition that goes well beyond the borders of the country. Indeed, many francophone countries eat this delicacy during January. A few other European countries have a cake similar to this one.
A galette des rois, the king’s cake, is a circular cake made with almond paste and where a ceramic bean is left inside to be found. The tradition wants that the youngest at the table hides and distributes the slices. Then, the person that finds the bean inside of his cake is crowned king or queen.
This tradition is a mix between Christian and Roman. Romans celebrated Saturnales, seven days of celebration, with a cake similar to the one we still eat. They would draw a slave or a man sentenced to death, and honor him like a king for seven days before executing him.
If history taught us anything, it is that kings often end up dead in France. Be careful what cake you eat in January.
Many more traditions exist around the world, often similar to those ones. Even in a world where religion is not as prominent as it used to be; people still follow the traditions linked to it without thinking twice about the religious meaning behind. I grew up eating cake in January, not just the 6th, without knowing why we were eating cake in the first place.
Traditions are key to better understanding a country, but also hard to follow for foreigners, as it is often linked to family time. It is important to keep them alive, and someone to add a personal twist to it. What if you are not a Christian? Celebrate it anyway! Most people, like me, follow the traditions without knowing the religious background to it.
What about you? Do you celebrate any traditions in January?