Saturday, January 7, 2012

Epiphany and the season of Carnival

One of the traditions of Epiphany comes from the Greek Orthodox church.  It's called the Blessing of the Waters, in commemoration of the baptism of Christ.  In Turkey and several other eastern European nations, young men jump into the waters of rivers, lakes or the sea, to recover crucifixes that have been thrown into the water by their priests.  It is said that the person who retrieves the cross will be freed from evil spirits and will have a year of good luck. 

The tradition was brought to the United States by Greek immigrants who settled in Tarpon Springs, Florida.  I’ve had the pleasure of visiting this area; it’s picturesque and has great food and an interesting history.  At the turn of the twentieth century, sponge divers were recruited from the islands of Greece to come to Florida and help establish what would be a very productive sponge industry.   To this day, the cross diving ritual is re-enacted on the day of Epiphany.  It is a major deal – the youth participating are required to take prepatory religious classes; it is an honor simply to participate.  The celebration there is an event  that each year attracts Greek Americans from all across the country.

In Latin American and Hispanic cultures, January 6th is observed at Three Kings Day or the Day of the Kings. Even though December 25th is celebrated as Christmas within these cultures, the Day of Kings is often the day for giving gifts, in reflection of the gifts of the Magi to the Christ child.

Epiphany also marks the beginning of the season leading up to Mardi Gras, also known as Carnival. 

Living in the northeastern United States, I knew about Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday” preceding  Ash Wednesday and the onset of Lent.   It seemed to me to be a one day thing - a good excuse for a party or a little silliness - and not too much of a big deal anywhere else but New Orleans.  I didn't realize how wrong I was until I visited a family member who lives in central Louisiana around that time of year.

Their whole house was decorated for the Carnival season!  They had as many or more decorations than my family puts out for the Christmas season.  All purple, yellow, gold, and green, it was eye-catching and festive.  And they weren't alone - all their neighbors had decorated too.  The colors of course, have their symbolism.  Purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold represents power.

Although perhaps the bigger, more formal events are centered in New Orleans, many communities have a full calendar of events that start right on January 6, organized by social clubs called krewes.  They hold parties, dances and balls, mostly on weekends.  In addition to the formally organized events, smaller informal gatherings and parties in private homes are traditional for many people.

The parades start about three weekends before Mardi Gras itself.  And in New Orleans, from the second weekend before Mardi Gras on, there is at least one parade each night in the city.  The entire celebration keeps going right up until on Fat Tuesday.  Mardi Gras itself has roots in the ancient celebration of Lupercalia; I’ll revisit this topic down the road.

Throughout the season, the King's Cake is a central tradition enjoyed in school, offices, homes, and at parties large and small each weekend.  The cakes are usually like coffee cakes or cinnamon roll cakes, decorated with icing and yellow, green and purple sprinkles or sugar.  Somewhere in the cake is a ceramic or plastic baby.  (Originally this trinket was a coin, at some point the baby, representing the Christ child became the tradition.)  At big parties or balls, whoever gets the piece with the baby becomes the King or Queen of the event.  At smaller gatherings, the lucky person must provide the cake for the next party!

Hmmm…. Perhaps that’s not such a bad way to spend the winter….

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