Hail Epiphany and farewell to Christmas (and white Santas)

First things first: I hope that readers who are into that whole Christian calendar had a great 12 days of the real Christmas season, as opposed to the six or seven weeks of whatever that is that ends with an explosion of wrapping paper on Dec. 25.

Did anyone throw 12th night parties?

So this brings us to the great Feast of Epiphany, which in our ancient churches is the second most important day on the calendar after Easter/Pascha. More important than Christmas? Well, it's hard to rank these things, but the key element of this day -- marking the baptism of Jesus -- is the scriptural account of the revealing of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. That's big. In the West, the feast tends to focus on the arrival of the Three Kings at the cradle of Jesus.

To my surprise, Epiphany has been getting a bit more news ink in recent years (surf this search-engine file for a current sample).

Personally, I think it's the whole photo-op principle at work. I mean, who doesn't want to show up to put the following into shivering pixels?

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) -- Thousands of young men plunged into icy rivers and lakes across Bulgaria on Monday to retrieve crucifixes cast by priests in an old ritual marking the feast of Epiphany.

By tradition, a crucifix is cast into a lake or river and it's believed that the person who retrieves it will be healthy and freed from evil spirits throughout the year.

The celebration of Epiphany, or the Apparition of Christ, as Bulgarians call it, began in Sofia with a water-blessing ceremony. The head of Bulgaria's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neofit, said a prayer for the prosperity of the people and blessed the colors of representative army units -- a tradition abandoned in 1946 and re-established in 1992.

Concerning that whole health and evil spirits thing: I think it's wonderful, in stories of this kind, to mention folk and small-t traditions. However, it does help to include at least one sentence about why the feast exists in the first place and what church doctrine -- that whole big-T Tradition thing -- says about the symbolism of these kinds of rites.

Oh, and the "celebration of Epiphany" -- as in the feast itself -- began in Sofia? I think that what the AP team meant to say that this year's celebration of the feast in Bulgaria began in Sofia. By the way, for the Eastern Orthodox this is known as the great Feast of the Theophany.

Anyway, I am glad to see increasing coverage of this great feast. I am curious, however: If Protestants are growing more interested in liturgy and ancient rites, is this truly affecting how they celebrate Advent, Christmas and Epiphany? There might be a story there next year.

As opposed to that other huge, massive, crucial, apocalyptic story almost everyone covered this year.

You know the one: The whole "white Santa" thing?

Looking back on that media storm, what was that really about (other than a chance to jump on a statement by a Fox News star)?

Here in Charm City, the Santa war finally ended up on A1 with you basic local-angle story, which was valid in its own right. Here's the top of that Baltimore Sun report:

When he was growing up near Mondawmin Mall and the Christmas season rolled around, Andrew Dubose rarely missed a chance to visit the old man in the red suit and white beard who always gave him such a warm holiday greeting.

Now 39, married, and the father of three, Dubose drives his children from the family's home in Randallstown so they can sit with the same man in exactly the same spot -- Lucas Durant, the longest-running black Santa Claus in Baltimore.

"Santa loves you," Durant, 65, tells Dubose's children, Jasmine, 15; Mason, 2; and Drew, 6 months, as he did their father decades ago.

"Santa Luke," as he's known, has been Kriss Kringle at Mondawmin Mall for 29 years running. For many, dropping in for his hugs and ho-ho-hos is an intergenerational ritual, and not just because he, like the Duboses, is African-American.

And why is this news? Time for the summary paragraph:

This season has been an acrimonious one when it comes to Santa Claus, especially concerning a question that has rarely been asked as openly as it has this year: Why is the familiar Christmas icon nearly always portrayed as a Caucasian?

Last week, a blogger at Slate, Aisha Harris, raised the question by writing that the practice of presenting Santa as "an old white male" can shame black children and should be changed. The column rankled Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who called the idea "ridiculous" and sniffed on the air that "Santa just is white."

Reverse racism; white privilege; political correctness. From CNN and Time to the Gawker website, the media have been abuzz with charges and countercharges since.

So what do we know about this Santa Claus guy? Time to call in the authoritative academic!

Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and an African-American, said she told her now-grown daughter that "Santa Claus was the spirit of Christmas," and that meant Santa could look different.

Still, she says, seeing Santas of different races can be affirming for minority children, in the same way that they benefit from having teachers of different races.

What's missing?

The story quotes lots of interesting voices about this issue, but no one actually talks about where this Santa thing began -- following the trail that runs from your local shopping mall, through the offices of advertising pros in 19th century New York City, into the folk traditions of Amsterdam and other European cities and, eventually, into church traditions about the life and work of the actual St. Nicholas of Myra.

Here is my question: Other than the historical roots of the pop-culture Santa, what is this story actually about? I mean, the man named St. Nicholas is from the land that we now call Turkey. What color is that and why does it matter?

I agree with a lot of what Jeffrey Weiss said here:

... Santa is a splendid figure of imagination. Therefore, arguing that he has to be one color is like insisting that unicorns can only be one color or that leprechauns are only allowed to wear one brand of skivvies. Or like setting a limit for how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Beyond that, what does it mean to say that Santa and Jesus are “white”? In today’s multiracial America, the claim sounds as anachronistic as the definition of an octoroon (a person of one-eighth black ancestry). But let’s play along:

The image of Santa is anything but eternal. And it’s been revised any number of times. The original character may well have been real: Legends grew up over the centuries about a Bishop Nicholas of Myra, a town on the southeast coast of what is now Turkey. Was the fourth-century bishop a fat, rosy-cheeked man in a fur-lined red suit?

Nope. He was likely to have had an olive complexion, given the population. And a dark tan, given the climate. And while winter in Myra will dip into the 30s, he wouldn’t have had much use for the heavy snow garb.

So St. Nicholas of Myra turns into Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas and eventually, in the hands of advertising giants, into Santa -- period.

What's my point? If journalists want to wade into controversies about the alleged Santa, it really helps to devote at least one or two paragraphs to the history of the symbol. Otherwise, what's the point?

See you next year, I'm afraid.

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