The war on Epiphany

magi 01I’m sure we all enjoyed the relative downturn in this year’s War on Christmas. One personal downside was that I didn’t get a chance to write about the war on Advent and the rest of the liturgical calendar. Why is Christmas always singled out?

In a very real sense, though, the War on Christmas is alive as ever. Christmas is a liturgical season lasting 12 days. We’re in that season right now.

I’m in Colorado at the moment and every time I wish folks a Merry Christmas they seem to think I’m a bit behind with my greetings. It is very hard being a liturgical Christian celebrating the penitential season of Advent when everyone else is yukking it up with holiday parties and crazed shopping. And then when we’re ready to party, everyone else thinks Christmas is over and done with.

It is into this holiday mix that USA Today‘s Mindy Fetterman offered a business story alleging that some retailers are looking at ways to further exploit the liturgical calendar:

If you think the holiday shopping season is over, you’re wrong. A growing number of retailers are promoting the Hispanic tradition of celebrating Three Kings Day every Jan. 6 as a way to extend the buying season past Christmas and connect with Hispanic customers.

El Dia de los Reyes celebrates the day in Christian tradition when the three wise men visited the baby Jesus. Known as the Epiphany, the day is as important as Christmas in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain and many Latin American countries. Children put their shoes out the night before or leave grass for the wise men’s camels. They wake the next day to unwrap presents.

I love that the business section is covering this and it’s a very good idea for a news piece.

While the focus of the piece is on sales to Hispanic customers, it must be noted that Jan. 6 is a special day for more than Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, etc. In Western churches, Epiphany marks the coming of wise men bringing gifts to visit the Christ child, who by so doing “reveal” Jesus to the world as Lord and King. In Eastern churches, the day is called Theophany and commemorates Jesus’ baptism.

The hook for this business story, however, is pushing an additional two weeks of shopping on Hispanic customers. It is interesting how much retailers have always driven the American calendar and directed Christians to decide which holidays are most important. Easter has never quite caught on as a gift-giving time and as a result it’s much less culturally important than Christmas even though its spiritual significance is unparalleled. Three Kings Day, however, is a different story:

For the first time, actors dressed as the three wise men began wandering through Florida Mall in Orlando on Sunday and posing with children for photos on a repurposed Santa display. “Now we have three thrones,” laughs general manager Brian Peters.

Wal-Mart, (WMT) which began promoting the tradition in a big way last year, is expanding. This year, the three kings are visiting Wal-Marts in the Southwest, and more than 300 Wal-Marts have displays and products geared to the celebration. And Kmart (SHLD) is sponsoring the Three Kings parade in Miami on Jan. 13 and an appearance by Jose Feliciano at its Bronx, New York, store Thursday.

“It makes all the business sense in the world if you can extend the selling season,” says Alex Lopez Negrete, CEO of Lopez Negrete Communications, the nation’s second-largest Hispanic marketing company. The firm worked with Wal-Mart on its Three Kings campaign.

Just because the story appears in the business pages doesn’t mean the reporter couldn’t have gotten some feedback from religious types about how they feel about retailers attempting to capitalize on the liturgical calendar. Reporters may be surprised by the response.

Last year I wrote something for the Los Angeles Times about the secularization of Christmas in America. One of my favorite responses came from a pastor in Indiana who told me he began his Christmas Eve sermon thusly:

“Pulpits all over Christendom will again be decrying the secularization of Christmas. I suppose I can’t blame them. Christian preachers are bound to fantasize about the Church being doctrinally and liturgically pure and all the world loving it for it. But I am enough a historian and a realist to know that if it wasn’t for the secularization of Christmas we’d have a lot fewer people here tonight. If the Church has given the world a holiday for nostalgia and guilt-abating good works, even if the coming of Jesus Christ is missed, the world has given us a once-a-year opportunity to proclaim that coming. If the option to the secularization of Christmas is that Christmas be as popular and well-attended as Ascension, I’d say hurray for secularization, and only wish that I could come up with a way to get Madison Avenue to promote other Holy Days.

Other Holy Days, of course, don’t so easily give themselves over to nostalgia. It is hard to be cute about Good Friday.”

Whether or not retailers cater to liturgical Christians, we still celebrate 12 days of Christmas followed by the Epiphany season. Reporters should not overlook the calendars of the world’s oldest and largest churches.

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  • http://optimus-stoo.livejournal.com Stoo

    “war on christmas” is a slightly odd term to me, it suggests a large and organised faction out to deliberately destroy the season. I mean yeah commercialism and a secular season of goodwill has trumped christianity in many parts, but that’s just a cultural shift. There’s a difference between seeking to fight something, and just plain not caring about it.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    It’s really a war on offensive religious speech and Jesus is now offensive. And Christmas is too big to ignore, in terms of dollars, so — holidays.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Mollie, thanks for covering the USA Today business story. I thought that the reporter did a good job of explaining Epiphany and its relevance, but I agree with you that she missed an opportunity to get feedback on the secularization of another holiday (i.e. holy day).

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  • Tom Stanton

    Mollie wrote:

    “Easter has never quite caught on as a gift-giving time and as a result it’s much less culturally important than Christmas even though its spiritual significance is unparalleled.”

    For so many reasons – that is one great sentence.

  • Brian Walden

    Doesn’t Epiphany also celebrate the wedding at Cana in addition to the wise men and the baptism of Jesus? It’s kind of vague as to which epiphany is being celebrated.

    Christmas has always been celebrated with a good deal of influence from the surrounding culture; the spirit of the season is one that anyone can relate to so it appeals to a much wider group of people than an average holy day. I think I would happily trade a heavily commercialized Christmas season during the liturgical Christmas in exchange for keeping Christmas out of Advent. I’d even go for a frenzied Christmas shopping season in November (which is pretty much already happening anyway) if it got toned down for Advent. That might even allow the holidays of other religions, like Hanukkah, to get more individual billing rather than just be lumped in with “the holidays”.

    But unless American Christians become start living more by the liturgical calendar than the secular one, I doubt that’ll happen. The commercialism will happen as long as we’re willing to participate in it and spend our money celebrating Christmas while it’s still Advent – and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

  • http://www.lutheranzephyr.com Chris

    I wonder if you overstate the “problem,” Mollie.

    I doubt if many marketers at Wal-Mart or Florida shopping malls give a darn about the liturgical calendar. Rather, their attempt to stretch the “holiday” shopping season and market Dia de los Reyes is an acknowledgment of the gift-giving that is a long-established part of this holiday for a large segment of their market (ie, Latinos), not an assault on the liturgical calendar. If people make gift-giving part of their religious/cultural celebrations, retailers will find a way to help them buy and give gifts. Anything wrong with that?

    If I suddenly notice Ascension Day Mattress Sales or a Pentecost Price Cut Blow-Out, then I might change my mind. Until then, this War on Christian Holy Days seems overblown.

    tmatt – Jesus is offensive, and that’s why the culture-at-large responds with cute bunnies at Easter and a jolly fat man in a red suit at Christmas. And I’m ok with that. I don’t consider such a sanitizing response to be a “war.” After all, it’s not up to the culture to carry the Message. That’s not the secular culture’s vocation, if you will. The proclamation of the Good News is the calling of the church and its members. Should I be surprised that my local shopping mall doesn’t reverence the Christ Child? Not at all. Egad! I would be appalled if it did!

  • Maureen

    You didn’t mention that there’s a business _named_ for Epiphany — Tiffany’s! (Tiffany = Tiphaine = Theophany.)

    I don’t know about the incense and myrrh, but they sure carry gifts of gold.

  • tmatt

    Chris:

    My point precisely. I was simply trying to note that the Christmas wars are part of a larger issue that GetReligion frequently focuses on — the battles to control offensive religious speech, period, as opposed to efforts to promote religious liberty, free speech and freedom of association (on the left and the right).

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  • Rick in Texas

    Chris wrote…

    it’s not up to the culture to carry the Message. That’s not the secular culture’s vocation, if you will. The proclamation of the Good News is the calling of the church and its members.

    THAT is a good summary Chris. A keeper. And a reminder that we should not get annoyed when people don’t “get” advent, Christmas, epiphany etc. If these are important things to understand, it’s our failure if they don’t – not theirs or the culture’s.

    But Molly – “Merry Christmas”, the greeting itself, isn’t really that much a part of the season *as part of the church year*, is it? It strikes me as of the same package as Saint Nick, shopping, trees and stockings – i.e., of the secular season. IMO, it isn’t a corollary of “Christ is Risen” during the 40 days of Eastertide. If believers in Christ like ourselves desire to “keep Christmas” (to use the phrase from Dickens), surely there are better ways of doing so than saying “Merry Christmas” (even as I admit to my regret that, other than Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship services, there is little in my life that distinguishes Christmas days 2 through 12 from any other day.

  • Martha

    Oh, great.

    Listen, if retailers really want to make something special out of the season of Christmas, then maybe they should refrain from putting up the Christmas stuff straight after taking down the Hallowe’en goods. (Like they did here in Ireland. I’m not joking: they still had the monkey nuts and witches hats on the shelves and the Christmas goodies going up alongside them).

    And don’t have the January sales in the third week of December. You remember, the old fashioned white goods sales *after* the 25th of December? That used to happen in, yes, January?

    Bringing those back might, just possibly might, “extend the buying season”.

    Fine, finished ranting now. But quite apart from the religious aspect, the commercial calendar is crazy. ‘Christmas’ starts in October and I’m serious that it looks like it’s going to start in July – that’s when the hotels started sending flyers into my workplace about “Book your office Christmas party now!”

    Crazy.

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  • Steven in Falls Church

    It is very hard being a liturgical Christian celebrating the penitential season of Advent when everyone else is yukking it up with holiday parties and crazed shopping. And then when we’re ready to party, everyone else thinks Christmas is over and done with.

    Because of conflicts caused by my business travel schedule in December, my wife and I were unable to host our traditional Christmas caroling party this season. It never dawned on us, however, that we should have planned a liturgically correct party during the 11-day period following Christmas Day. For next Christmas we could have a liturgically correct “Advent caroling party” before Christmas, but it would get monotonous singing songs that all start with the word “come.”

  • Dan

    Hey folks, only 129 shopping days left until Pentecost.

  • Jerry

    Religion and spirituality are all well and good, but how do they relate to what’s really important: the worship of the almighty dollar. True I’m being sarcastic, but that’s the way the culture is operating now.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    (Like they did here in Ireland. I’m not joking: they still had the monkey nuts and witches hats on the shelves and the Christmas goodies going up alongside them).

    What are “monkey nuts?”

    I’m surprised that St. Nick’s Night/Day isn’t promoted more. I know some have the tradition of leaving letters for “Santa/St. Nick” out for “St. Nick” to pick up when he leaves fruit and nuts in stockings. This could be exploited more.

    As for Easter, the commercial pull is in candy, eggs, new clothes, and flowers.

    As for shopping and saving money, for several years I have asked if maybe my family couldn’t celebrate Christmas when the Eastern Orthodox do–January 7. Imagine the savings doing one’s shopping during the alledged “after-Christmas sales.”

    I suspect the “Three Kings Festival” is more a cultural phenomenon than religious. Seems to be prevalent–and retailers are aiming it at–the Hispanic population. I have noticed that there is more and more Hanukkah stuff in stores than there used to be. When will Kwanzaa be exploited for gift-giving revenue potential?

    Here’s an idea for a burger chain–the Three Kings Triple Cheeseburger!

  • mim

    Easter is not the overwhelming marketing event that Christmas is, not because Jesus is offensive, but because the Resurrection of Christ is an overwhelmingly otherworldy event, untranslatable into secular terms, the disconnect between that on the one hand, and eggs, rabbits and spring on the other, seems unbridgeable. This was true even when Christmas wasn’t such a cultural hot potato–even then, the enchanting domestic scene with the baby in the manger provided a “bridge.”

    To give an example of this contrast: in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Linus recites the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” But even a devout Christian like Charles Schulz couldn’t do the same thing with the Resurrection. The Peanuts special for Easter was “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown.”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Chris (of comment #7 fame),

    I didn’t say that commercialization of holidays was a problem. Fact is, I noted that without commercialization, we wouldn’t celebrate the religious holidays we do!

    My “war on Epiphany” headline was a joke. See my LA Times piece linked above for more on that.

    Also reread the clip from the Christmas sermon I provided above.

    I don’t mind people disagreeing with me at all — but I just want to make sure everyone’s clear on what I wrote.

    Mollie

  • Peggy

    So, it takes Latin American immigrants to get retailers to notice a liturgical feast that has been recognized for centuries by Christians?

  • Dan

    “I noted that without commercialization, we wouldn’t celebrate the religious holidays we do!”

    I agree but I see it more from the reverse angle: the secularization of Christmas serves to preserve the memory of Christ among those who are far away from Him. Christ, not retailers, gives Christmas its enduring power.

  • Julia

    Known as the Epiphany, the day is as important as Christmas in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain and many Latin American countries. Children put their shoes out the night before or leave grass for the wise men’s camels. They wake the next day to unwrap presents.

    I hope the writer meant that it is as culturally important a day as Christmas, not as religiously important. And I wonder if it is as culturally important as Christmas. More properly it is the other bookend to the Christmas season.

  • Gregory

    If the option to the secularization of Christmas is that Christmas be as popular and well-attended as Ascension, I’d say hurray for secularization, and only wish that I could come up with a way to get Madison Avenue to promote other Holy Days.

    At first, I really liked this quote. After thinking about it overnight, I realized it was a false dichotomy. I remember back in my grad school days that Masses on Ash Wednesday were more heavily than those on either neighboring Sunday.

    Ascension is not the only alternative to a secular Christmas.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Spoke with my Mexican brother-in-law last night as my niece was looking forward to Three Kings Night/Day (Epiphany when I was growing up).

    Now, my neices get all the cultural extras what with St. Nick’s stockings December 6, Christmas December 25, and Three King’s Day today (January 6–funny, exactly one month after St. Nick’s).

    In the Mexican culture presents are given not on Christmas but on Three King’s Day. The belief is that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday and should get the presents. Three King’s Day honors the Wise Men (number and origin actually unknown) who brought gifts to Jesus. Thus in Mexico children get presents not on Christmas but Three King’s Day.

    And where gifts are given, especially on a universally accepted date or a date at least accepted by a large group of people. then there will be commercialization, secularization, and many other -izations going on. It’s capitalism. At Easter there are the many ads for Spring fashions and candy–remember the cackling Cadbury bunny with the chocolate eggs?

    Ace Collins opines that the commercialization of Christmas has had a positive effect as it focused less on drinking and more on family, especially gifts for loved ones and children.

  • steve wintermute

    see my 12/25/07 column in the Kingsport Time-News. A brief summary: The secular holiday season begins on Black friday and ends on 12/24. The religious Christmas season begins on 12/25 and ends on 1/6, Epiphany. If everyone, most especially Christians, understood the distinction, there would be no problem.

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