Wednesday, January 5

Of epiphanies great and small

Detail from Gozzoli's
Procession of the Magi
Although Christmas may seem over in much of the world, it is still in full swing here in Spain. Indeed, tonight, the eve of this the 12th day of Christmas, is the most eagerly awaited night of the entire Christmas holiday for Spanish children.

Traditionally, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were for family gatherings, meals and mass, and little or nothing in the way of gift giving. Instead, children received gifts on the night of January 5th, the Epiphany, the day of the Magi, the Wise Kings of Orient, los Reyes Magos. So it is this night that was and still is the most magical for the young and young at heart in Spain. Christmas trees were never a tradition here (although they are becoming increasingly popular), but most homes had a manger nativity scene, known as a Belén or nacimiento (literally Bethlehem or nativity), with figures representing the birth of Christ and his revelation to the Magi. Some of the figures can be quite ornate and beautiful and are handed down in families for generations. On the eve of the Epiphany, after seeing the cabalgata de los Reyes Magos, a street procession with elaborate staged representations of the Christmas story, highlighted by the three wise kings from Orient, children rush home to put their shoes next to the manger and in the morning find the gifts that the Magi Melchor, Baltazar and Gaspar have left for them.

Of course, the child in me is partial to Santa, but I have to say that Saint Nick’s connection to Christ is tenuous at best, so I think there is a bit more liturgical ‘integrity’ in giving pride of place to the Magi over the chubby jolly fellow in the red suit. I must say, though, that last year we were in Brussels, Bruges and Ghent shortly before Christmas and I found some of the commemorations of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklass) on December 6th to be quite beautiful. Specifically, in Ghent, we saw how a few boats full of boisterous singing children made their way through a half frozen canal, with Saint Nick leading the way, while their classmates on the bridges and streets collected money for orphans from the happy onlookers, many of whom joined the kids in song. (I recently learned from Wikipedia that in Belgium Saint Nicholas is the “patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students” — comforting to learn that even thieves have patron saints, how democratic is that?!)

Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Middle King, detail

One of the favorite though waning activities during the Christmas holiday is spending the time between Christmas Day and the Epiphany visiting the nativity scenes in churches, store displays and other public places. Some are quite large, sophisticated and even mechanized, so we can see a shooting star cross the sky, the Magi arrive on their camels, Herod issuing his murderous decree to slay the innocents, and Mary, Joseph and the newborn Christ taking flight to Egypt. There is something so warmly satisfying about watching the faces of little children light up with big eyes as they pick out the main players in the birthing drama of dramas about the king of kings. ¡Mira, la virgen! ¡El ñiño Jesús! ¡¡Baltazar!! (being the lone black man of the three, Balthazar is the easiest to pick out). There is little or nothing in the way of snow, but much moss and sand. Here, where I live, in Don Quijote country, there are mini-windmills. I particularly like the Bethlehem representations that show us bakers taking bread out of their ovens, ironsmiths hammering blades on anvils, a shepherd readying a lamb for slaughter.

Gozzoli — Cappella dei Magi
Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, Florence
One rather comical tradition in this part of Spain is the cagané (a Catalan word, as this originated in Catalonia), which literally means the “shitter”. Yes, for the sake of realism, the big nativity scenes normally include the figure of a man squatting down with his pants bunched up at his ankles and tending to certain organic needs, respectfully removed at a discreet distance from baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Needless to say, the ooooing and awwwwing that accompany the excited fingerpointing when Mary and Jesus are spotted soon melt into delighted giggles when the kids spot this figure, ¡Mira! El cagané!, and the pointed fingers quickly cover up their giggle laughs. So from a very early age, Spanish children know what myrrh and frankincense are —although they prefer more modern gifts from the Magi, like WIIs, Ipads and cellphones— and also learn that people have to squat and take dumps, did not always have flush toilets, and that there is nothing innately shameful or vile about the human body and its functions. Or so I would like to think that they learn.

Well, returning from the socio-scatological to the ritual sacred, I am embedding a video below that is representative of how elaborate and beautiful these belenes can be. This particular nativity scene is set up every year during the 12 days of Christmas at a church in a lovely town called Chinchilla, around 10 miles from where I live. I recommend setting the resolution to 720p and viewing it full screen.

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The term epiphany was originally coined by the ancient Greeks to refer to the appearance or manifestation of a god. Later on, it became identified with this particular Christian celebration and tradition. Over time it has also come to be used to refer to a luminous moment of intense insight into the essence of something, normally an otherwise mundane or commonplace object, that special flashpoint where the everyday and the transcendent suddenly meet. It was James Joyce who perhaps did the most to give the word epiphany this secular meaning, unrelated to the appearance or manifestation of a deity or of Christ. He wrote brief vignettes, prose poems, in which he illustrated epiphanies. For Joyce, an epiphany was a sudden “revelation of the whatness of a thing”, the moment when “the soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant”. Surely, epiphanies are the lifeblood of poetry, the shudder we feel when the things of this world seem to overflow into us.

In this vein, I was tickled to learn recently (a little bird on Facebook told me) that January 6th, the Epiphany, el día de los Reyes, is also the birthday of a very special blog friend. How delightfully appropriate, I thought, feeling that many things were thus explained, for this child of the Epiphany strikes me as a person who forever craves not so much chocolate —as she is fond of claiming— as she does epiphanies. A poetess who seems addicted to finding, creating and sharing epiphanies on her blog, The Chocolate Chip Waffle. So now I know your secret, Terresa: your sublime and scintillating poetry and prose is a birthmark and birthright, gifts from some wandering magi. And I know this day is especially important to you. That you approach the Epiphany from your deep Christian faith as the 12th and crowning day of Christmas, festival of the rebirth of hope for a more loving world and belief in the possibility of salvation and redemption. And that you also come to the epiphany from your poetic practice, in the JamesJoycean sense of finding and spreading radiance in our everyday lives.

So, if you like, treat yourself to a visit to Terresa's blog and wish her a happy; tell her Lorenzo said ¡Felix cumpleaños!

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The images I have used on this post are from the wonderful cycle of 15th century frescoes, The Procession of the Magi, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence. By clicking on the captions you can see a large landscape image of the series. You can also see a very brief visual intro to the wonderful chapel below (again, try seeing it in 720p and full screen):


  1. Oh, that post was so wonderful, so delightful, so informative, Lorenzo! It has quite made my evening.

  2. Rich and lush is what this is. From the Gozzoli paintings, to the crèches, the music, the epiphanies and the magi, to the lushest of women, Terresa. What a rich, vast world we have . . . the history, culture, art, music . . . voluminous red hair (!) . . . and poetry-epiphanies that knock my socks off. You present a beautiful, interactive epiphany celebration, Lorenzo. My hat's (and my socks) off to you!

  3. This looks luscious and fascinating, Lorenzo, and I will be back to read it in full and comment later. At the moment, however, I am leaving for a road trip and simply do not have the time this interesting piece deserves. Have a good day.

  4. ha. love this...and the shitter settles it nicely....and will have to pop over and say HB to the waffle...

  5. Is it very wrong of me to ache for what I do not have, for what the society that I know of lacks? For surely, here I am, aching just a bit.

    Gorgeous telling and sharing, and yet you let me laugh too. Look, over there, someone with his pants down!

    (Teressa is a gift.)

    It is good to visit you again.


  6. So good to be here, to reflect with you on the meaning and tradition of the Epiphany. Glad to see some friends among your visitors. Why, we could all be gathering together at the special event the Magi honored on this special day. Happy Epiphany to you, wise friend.

  7. lorenzo - this writing and accompanying images are an epiphany in themselves! the little model and all its workings carries that special magic that entrances child and adult alike. the frescoes carry their own weight and demand repeated viewings to fully appreciate what is being shared. my goodness lorenzo!!!! steven

  8. Insightful and beautiful post, LLL. And a very Happy Birthday to the most insightful and beautiful Terresa! xx

  9. Wonderful post. And what a lovely shout-out for Terresa, whose blog I also follow.

  10. Happy Epiphany and epiphanies to all of you. I am away from home and without much internet access right now so I will be slow in responding by email and on your blogs to all of these kind comments, but I'll get there!

  11. Lorenzo,

    I cherish your posts so much.
    I have to pop in for repeat visits to give them the attention they deserve, and to swirl around in the art, the music, the words, leaving each time with more. Thank you.

    And my inlaws are Italian, so celebrate the Epiphany, and when I learned about it more through my children's Catholic school curriculum , well , what's not to love.

    I do wish we had more of these traditions and celebrations here , rituals and traditions have that way of making us feel, even if only briefly, that hope, that idea of what could be. I think that we grapple about so much in the typical North American take on all of the holidays instead of embracing and rejoicing and honouring , and yes, having the opportunity for our own little epiphanies.

    and I adore Terresa , and have wished her Happy Birthday.

  12. ah the sacred and the profane........i believe cultures that embrace these seeming polarities are the sanest.......

    will take a peek at terresa's blog. anyone who possesses a JamesJoycean sense of finding and spreading radiance in our everyday lives is most certainly worth seeking out.

  13. Wow. One of my favorite things to do as a kid, was to set up my mother's creche--everything had its place; the three kings, the lame shepherd (don't believe there was a...squatter...however), and of course the Holy Family.
    Everything that you have brought together here is a gift, for all Epiphanies, sacred and secular, bring the gasp of understanding and recognition. Thank you.

    And now I will wish Terresa a happy Birthday. She, too, is treasure.

  14. I have returned, Lorenzo, as promised, to savor the myriad gifts of this posting. I have learned so much in the past few minutes that I feel obliged to send you a check for the tuition. Loved the history, loved the images, loved the whole discussion on the history of epiphanies. I was unaware of the fact that it was Joyce who began the secular use of the word. Happy new year!

  15. Thank you, Lorenzo. To be included in the same paragraph as Joyce makes my knees weak. :)

    And as George says, I feel obliged to send you a check for the tuition, there's so much to learn from your insights, but more than that, so much heart and friendship that you share, I am grateful for it. Thank you, your words mean a lot.

  16. I'm feeling a little ashamed of my Walmart manger with the shepherd whose hand has been re-glued multiple times and the donkey with only one ear - due to many little hands wanting to hold him and accidentally dropping him. I love the idea of walking around the city and seeing mangers in storefronts - boy would there be lawsuits here in the USA. Really enjoyed the entire video of the amazing manger "town" scene. My girls loved, of all things, the white kitty in the window. And were very sad to not see the squatting man... Thank you for all of this education!

  17. I'm so glad you included information on the images--what a beautiful post, Lorenzo! And the music is making me tear up here. Thanks so much for a most moving post!

  18. Lorenzo, You're such a beautiful writer. I've subscribed and look forward to more luscious postings.

  19. Jewel-like post!

    Then we see the real gem: your talented daughter!

    Aloha from Waikiki

    Comfort Spiral



  20. Lorenzo

    This is a glorious post, epiphanies both big and small reading it. My younger son was born on this day of the "Epiphany" .



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