Sunday, 6 January 2013


Now Christmas is past, 
Twelfth Night is the last.
To the Old Year adieu,
Great joy to the new!

When I was young, I never much liked this particular day, because last night being 'Twelfth Night', the Christmas tree had been taken down and the decorations packed away for another year. Not only that, but it also meant that a return to school was now imminent!

There are many ancient traditions – including much feasting and fun – connected with what has been called 'the forgotten holiday' and one of them is the superstition that it is unlucky to leave your decorations up beyond that date – what's more, if you forget to take them down in time, you have to leave them up for an entire year to avoid misfortune!

This has been the first year in many that we have had a Christmas – and, therefore, a Christmas tree – at home and as much as I have loved decorating it (even if it is an artificial one) and looking at it over the holiday, I really don't want it hanging around all year-long! Not only that, but it would mean that I would be deprived of the very real pleasure of 'rediscovering' the various tree decorations come another December.

Concerning those decorations, I have to confess that there are – surprise, surprise – rather a lot of Disneyesque nick-knacks on my tree (the morbidly fascinated will find examples here) but the items I value most are six elderly plastic birds that my mother and I bought in Woolworth's (price: 6 old pence each) fifty-eight years ago...

Flying about amongst the branches, they awake the spirit of Christmas Past and memories come flooding back of many Christmases: some happy and, sadly, quite a few not... But whatever recollections they bring to mind, I treasure them greatly...

Anyway, there is, I have just discovered, significant disagreement about exactly when Twelfth Night falls: many people consider it to be today – twelve days after Christmas Day – but officially, it seems, the calculation should be made from sunset on 24 December, Christmas Eve (from a time when the day was deemed to end when the sun went down as opposed to midnight) which would make Twelfth Night 5 January – the eve of Epiphany.

Epiphany, the feast on which, according to church tradition, the Christ Child was visited by three wise men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, prompts a thought in my mind... How did this simple couple, Joseph and Mary – a humble carpenter and his very young wife – react to being given these curious and extravagant gifts? Gold for kingship; frankincense for priestly anointing and myrrh for embalming at death. Perhaps they were just yet another mystery among so many that had marked out their recent lives. According to Luke the Evangelist: 'Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart...'

But what did they do with these valuable presents once they had returned to the tedium of everyday life in Nazareth? 

At last year's London exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art, I spent some time contemplating William Holman Hunt's painting, 'The Shadow of Death'. Completed in 1873, it depicts Christ stretching from his work in his father's carpentry shop and, in so doing, casting a shadow that foreshadows his crucifixion...

In a picture laden with symbolism, one particular detail drew my eye: Mary is shown upon her knees, turning and seeing the ominous shadow. But what intrigued me most was that, in Holman Hunt's imagination, Mary is disturbed in the act of looking in a chest containing –– the gifts of the magi...

As my plastic Christmas birds return to their tissue-paper nests, I will be wrapping-up and storing-away memories of yet another Christmas: one or two moments of sadness and regret, but, thankfully, many more of joy and happiness.

Moments and memories to be treasured up...

Images: The Epiphany is depicted in a mural titled "Adoration of the Magi" in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Conception Abbey in Conception, Missouri and was painted by Benedictine monks in the late 1800s.

William Holman Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death' hangs in The Manchester City Art Gallery


Michael G. said...

Your Woolworth birds are priceless!

Boll Weavil said...

We actually share some joy in seeing your decorations as it brings back the memory of the special day we spent together.Beyond that, we go back to many years before when we first met and you had a tree up in your flat. Around it were piles of presents all labelled up for shipping. In the pile was one for me - next to one for Ray Bradbury ! That was a memory to make one feel good for sure !

Brian Sibley said...

And one of the very happy memories of this past Christmas was your visit to us in our temporary home.