Early this morning on tv I watched Pope Benedict XVI deliver his Angelus address to the huge crowd assembled in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on the Feast of the Epiphany, or the Three Kings, as it is popularly known in many parts of the world.
The Holy Father took the opportunity to announce to the crowd, and to the world, the 22 Bishops from around the world who would receive the Cardinal’s hat in Rome on February 18th.
I must admit that the sight of Rome on the Feast of the Epiphany made me look back rather than forward. I recalled my first Epiphany in Rome in 1952, when I was surprised and entertained to see the Roman motorists bringing gifts to the police who direct traffic every day at the furiously busy piazzas and intersections of the ancient city.
On any day of the week it is fascinating to watch the policeman direct traffic in Rome. He stands on a podium in the center of four, five, or six intersecting streets, dressed in his smart dark blue uniform, with leather leggings, white pith helmet, large white gauntlet gloves, and, of course, a whistle between his teeth. He is master of the situation. With expansive flamboyant gestures of hands and arms he guides the unruly Roman traffic like the conductor of an orchestra. Regular short blasts on his whistle warn the motorists to prepare to stop, or start, when he is about to change his signal.
Some people say that every Roman motorist is a Formula One driver at heart, so it was impressive to see how respectfully they responded to the traffic conductor. On the feast of the Epiphany they responded in another way. Motorist after motorist drove slowly to the podium to deposit a colorful gift package, so that every half-hour or so an assistant had to come to remove the packages to leave room for further gifts to come. I think it was the motorists’ way of thanking the police for the help they gave in getting them to work, and safely home again every day.
Why should the Feast of the Epiphany be the day to say thanks to the traffic police? I think the Epiphany was chosen because it is the day of the star that guided Three Wise Men with their gifts to Bethlehem, and sent them safely home by another way.
“Twelfth Night” is a play of William Shakespeare supposedly written to provide entertainment for the last night of the Christmas season. Its first recorded performance was in 1602.
During the reign of the Tudors in England, the twelve days of Christmas were days of continuous celebration and merry-making. The twelfth night was the climax of these celebrations, where confusion was not only permitted but encouraged as a form of entertainment.
Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was particularly suited to this, as it is a comedy where confusion reigns. The confusion arises from mistaken identity and a reversal of gender roles. The leading character, Viola, is shipwrecked and loses contact with her twin brother Sebastian, whom she wrongly believes was drowned. She disguises herself as her brother, and gets a job as a page in the service of the local Duke. This gives rise to a series of hilarious situations which ends happily only when Sebastian finally appears, and Viola returns to her proper role as his twin sister.
The twelve days of Christmas are also remembered in a medieval English Christmas carol which recalls the different gift “my true love sent to me” on each of the twelve days. The song is so arranged that each verse begins with the new gift, but then adds the gifts of the previous days. The final verse lists the gifts sent on “the twelfth day of Christmas” as, “12 drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping, 10 lords a-leaping, 9 ladies dancing, 8 maids a-milking, 7 swans a-swimming, 6 geese a-laying, 5 gold rings, 4 colly birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”.
The Twelve Days of Christmas end on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany celebrates the Three Wise Men who followed the star, and came to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Child born to Mary in Bethlehem.