By Sister Susan Hutchens, OSB
Happy Feast of the Epiphany, Feast of the Three Kings, Little Christmas, Feast of the Star! Though this feast previously fell on January 6, and was moved by the church some years ago to a Sunday, it officially ends the Twelve Days of Christmas. Call it what you wish, we know that throughout the world this day is celebrated with many unique practices: swimming in a frozen pond, receiving gifts under the bed, having high tea, baking cakes with trinkets inside. In some countries it is the actual day when children receive their Christmas gifts.
No matter the nation, the meaning is clear – Epiphany is a Feast of gift-giving when the Wise Men recognized the Christ child, and in gratitude for God’s gift to humanity presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – gifts from “Kings” to a King.
No matter what one’s Christmas crib set looked like, the figures of the kings were splendid – painted in gold and brightly colored robes, carrying exotic gifts for a tiny child. It is a day that reminds us all that we too need to give gifts to God in thanksgiving for Jesus, who is a gift from God to us in his Incarnation.
On this special day my family had a custom of throwing each child up into the air three times, one for each of the Kings. The sheer joy of being tossed high (well at least as high as our ceiling would allow) was a thrilling feeling. We all have seen little babies being safely tossed above their parents who lay on their backs on a soft floor, swung into the air between the two arms of their parents when going for a walk, or bouncing on a big brother’s leg as if they were riding a pony.
But our custom didn’t just include the littlest ones in the family. My Dad continued to toss us high even after we were definitely not babies, not even toddlers. I smile even how knowing that the last time my Dad tossed me was on the Epiphany when I was twelve! (I must have been small for my age.) What a feeling!
That feeling wasn’t just about “flying” in the air. It was about being held in such a special way that when it was our turn, we were the only one that mattered at that point. It was a joyous and extraordinary event, precisely because it was done only once a year. I can assure you that none of the children in my family were ever sick or away on the Feast of the Three Kings!
We all watched with expectation as each child received their three tosses and everyone held their breath until each catch was completed. I have no idea where this practice originated, but I know I loved it. It signaled the end of the Christmas season, and the beginning of a new year. But it meant more than that, which is why it remains in my memory.
As children, we were given this one last gift at the end of the twelve days – the gift of being thrown high into the air. It was truly a gift of Joy. I think for me it spoke of the true meaning of Christmas – the gift of oneself to others: my father to each of us children; my mother and siblings to each other. The gifts we give of ourselves to one another are immeasurable and “priceless” as the well-known credit card commercial states.
God’s gifts to us are found in the “dailyness” of our lives – the gifts that fall at our feet and often go unnoticed: a smile from someone, a new tune that plays in our head and brings a light feeling with it, a completed project, a calming thought that creeps in and sees us through an alarming situation, a chance meeting of a new friend in our lives. We give those same gifts in return to others, and never even know that we do it. Those are truly the gifts that matter. The Incarnate God lives within us, and we share that God with others a million times a day.
In the long run, no matter whose arms we are held in during this life – a parent’s, a lover’s, a child’s, or perhaps no one’s – the greatest gift is that we are all forever held in the loving arms of God. Truly a gift from a King to us.