I was raised Christian but, I'm embarrassed to say, for most of my life I didn't fully get Christmas. I've never been a big shopper, but like most Americans, I thought the Christmas season was the Christmas shopping season, which as we all know lasts from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
It turns out that, while Christmas is a Christian holiday, shopping is not actually a religious experience.
That recent month we all just survived, with its ubiquitous Santas, red Starbucks cups and deals on flat-screen TVs, was actually Advent in the church calendar. It's intended to be a time of hopeful waiting, quietly readying oneself for the arrival of Jesus on Christmas day. Not crowded or exhausting at all. Quiet. Hopeful.
In the church calendar, the Christmas season actually begins on Christmas and lasts for 12 days, just like the song. (For the curious, my friend Jack Cuffari, an interspiritual minister, writes about the symbolism of the song's twelve gifts every year on his Facebook community page.) The twelve-day Christmas season is supposed to be about gift-giving, visits from loved ones, writing to those who are far away, time with family, eating, drinking, and general merry-making. Twelve days of love and friendship. Sounds good to me.
The end of the Christmas season is marked by Three Kings Day, which is today! Officially called Epiphany, January 6 is the day on which Christians traditionally remember the visit of the three Magi who brought gifts to the Christ child. For most American Christians, this is a relatively minor detail of last month's story of Christmas. But for many Christians around the world, the visit of the Three Kings is one of the most celebrated events of the season.
When I briefly lived in Moscow during the summer of 1992, I was surprised when my Russian friends told me "Christmas" was celebrated on January 6. At first I thought the terminology may have gotten a bit muddled in translation, but it was clear that for the Eastern Orthodox Christians, December 25 was not the major holiday. All the good stuff happened on January 6. How could this be?
This is actually the case for many Christians around the world. In Latin America, although Christmas is obviously a major holiday, gifts are traditionally exchanged on Three Kings Day, and in fact it is the Three Kings who mysteriously deliver gifts to children in the night. Instead of stockings, children leave their shoes out, hoping gifts will be deposited in them. And instead of cookies for Santa, children leave grass in their shoes for the Kings' camels to eat.
When Three Kings Day arrives, it's party-time. And in Mexico, the celebration wouldn't be complete without the Rosca de Reyes (literally "ring of kings"): the Three Kings Cake.
Cake is really not the right word; it's more of a sweet, yeasty bread. Baked in a circle, it symbolizes a king's crown, and is festively topped with candied fruit and strips of sugar paste. Frothy Mexican Hot Chocolate is the beverage of choice.
Perhaps the best part of all is the surprise hidden inside: a tiny (usually plastic) baby Jesus, about an inch-and-a-half long is either baked inside or placed inside from the bottom after baking. Whoever gets the baby Jesus in their slice will host the next party on Candlemas Day (Candelaria in Spanish), February 2, with lots of tamales. So, in quintessentially Mexican style, one party leads to another.
In Mexico, families usually order their Rosca de Reyes from a bakery rather than making their own. But if you'd like to enjoy this cake in the United States, unless you live near a Hispanic bakery you'll probably be baking it yourself. It's not terribly difficult, but like any yeast bread, it does take time and a bit of care to allow the flavor to fully develop and the bread to rise properly.
Serve it with Mexican Hot Chocolate for a fully traditional celebration. If you can't find a small plastic (or porcelain) baby Jesus, hide a bean or some other small token inside.
And go ahead, have another party on February 2. And next year, consider adding a little peaceful, hopeful waiting to your pre-Christmas season.
More parties and more peace. Now that sounds more like the true spirit of Christmas.