When we celebrate Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, it commemorates when the Wise Men actually made it to the manger to marvel at the Christ child. It’s a holiday that celebrates miraculous change, and great claps of insight. James Joyce wrote about it a lot. And as an English major, so did I, throwing around the word “epiphany”, every time a character underwent even the most minor transformation.
I can barely remember when our family started actively celebrating the holiday. Perhaps it was because close Russian Orthodox friends always threw an Epiphany party. Or maybe it was just a way of giving myself more time to get Christmas cards out - a sort of extension on holiday deadlines.
Anyway, we started when our sons were small, and they locked into it with all their might, knowing a good thing when they saw it. It is, after all, a chance to extend the Christmas season five days past the dreary resolve of New Year’s - and postpone facing the return to school. Once in a while we have a party, but we always have a Three Kings Cake.
The cake requires that you bake three almonds into it. The lucky people who get them become the kings. They get to wear homemade paper mache crowns. For the rest of the festivities, they are waited upon, and generally fussed over by the rest of us.
Of course, kingship always comes with a few risks. There’s the real chance of biting down wrong on the almond, and fracturing an unstable tooth. So guests proceed carefully through their pieces of cake, chewing gingerly.
But I truly love to bury stuff in cakes. You might not want to try this at home yourself, but at the turn of the millennium, I decided to bake good luck charms into a grand chocolate cake at our New Year’s party. Guests would be delighted with their little metal acorn for longevity, or their tiny heart for love. Because I wasn’t sure how the metal would interact with the batter, I carefully wrapped the charms in aluminum foil. This was a mistake.
Even though I’d warned guests to chew carefully, the yelps of pain when foil connected with dental fillings were piteous to hear. And of course, the aluminum balls also presented a choking hazard. They wouldn’t cut it with even the most laissez faire pediatrician. Happily, tragedy was avoided, and discomforts forgiven. I like to think people left filled with hope for the year 2000.
Actually this may have something to do with the way change works - miraculous and mysterious as it often is. The simple act of eating something new could be risky in our primeval past, when the first Homo Habilis shucked an oyster, or pried an oyster mushroom off a tree.
It’s wise to be conscious, ready for inspiration when it hits and not gobble life too thoughtlessly. But being willing to take the occasional small risk make s us more thankful for safety, the warmth of friends and firelight. And more awake to life’s possibilities.