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A Birthday and a Wild Party

Sacred and Profane Traditions Link the Joy of Christmas to the Excesses of Mardi Gras

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2004; Page B09

Much is said about the commercialization of Christmas. But the liturgical connections between Christmas and Carnival, the period of raucous merriment preceding Lent, are rarely discussed.

Linking Christmas and Easter in a continuous flow shows how the religious and secular can come together in ways many people don't think about. Here's the chronological framework on which the sacred and profane often intertwine:

Carnival ends on Mardi Gras, the last day of indulgence before Ash Wednesday. (G.m. Andrews -- Mobile Register Via AP)

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The Christmas season begins with Advent, four Sundays before Dec. 25, and concludes Jan. 6, the 12th day of Christmas, also known as Epiphany (from the Greek for "manifestation"). Carnival begins on Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, and concludes on Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the last day of sensual indulgence before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day period of fasting that leads to Easter.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, of which Twelfth Night is part, originated sometime after the 4th century, when church leaders decided that Dec. 25 was the day to celebrate Jesus's birth, said Monsignor Anthony F. Sherman, associate director of the liturgy office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Before that time, the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Magi -- often called the Three Wise Men -- were celebrated on Epiphany.

The following 12 days, beginning with Dec. 26, developed their own traditions, taking on religious significance but never matching the importance of Advent, the beginning of the annual liturgical cycle, Sherman said.

Incorporated into the 12 days are celebrations marking key moments and people in Jesus's life. Dec. 28, Holy Innocents Day, recognizes the martyrdom of the first-born sons King Herod killed in his effort to eliminate the Christ child. (Joseph and Mary had fled with Jesus to Egypt). Jan. 1, New Year's Day, is the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, and the anniversary of Jesus's circumcision and presentation in the temple.

Epiphany recalls the visit of the Magi, Jesus's baptism in the River Jordan and his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. In some countries, Spain and the Netherlands among them, Catholics celebrate Epiphany on Jan. 6 as Three Kings Day and exchange gifts then rather than at Christmas.

In the United States, Jan. 6 is not a holy day unless it falls on Sunday, so Epiphany is celebrated on the Sunday that falls between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8. The Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the following Sunday. (In 2005, Epiphany is celebrated Jan. 2; the Baptism of the Lord, Jan. 9; Ash Wednesday, Feb. 9; and Easter, March 27 on the Western calendar and May 1 on the Eastern Orthodox calendar.)

The origins of Twelfth Night celebrations -- usually held Jan. 5 -- are difficult to trace, in part because they took on lives of their own in different countries. Some accounts say they started in the Middle Ages, and by the early 1600s, when William Shakespeare introduced his comedy "Twelfth Night," the eve of Epiphany had evolved into a rowdy occasion of banquets, plays and partygoers dressed in disguise.

Twelfth Night festivities, usually featuring a King Cake or Twelfth Night Cake, made their way to the American colonies and were a popular way of bringing the Christmas holidays to a glorious conclusion. (King Cake recipes are available on the Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg Web sites.)

In New Orleans and other U.S. cities, Twelfth Night assumed a different role -- concluding one holiday season and kicking off another with Carnival, a decidedly secular celebration despite its religious origins. The orgiastic free-for-all debuted in Louisiana in the 1820s after students returned from school in Paris, put on strange costumes and danced in the streets, and became part of the first Mardi Gras parade in 1837.

Whatever their origins -- and meaning -- Twelfth Night celebrations continue today.

Little Falls Presbyterian Church in Arlington, for example, has held Twelfth Night potluck suppers as far back as anyone can remember, said Greg Kurasz, a member for 24 years and, with his wife, Rae, coordinator of recent Twelfth Night events.

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