As you can see, my tree and all the decorations are packed up and ready to go back in the hall cupboard for next year. The remainder of my Advent candle is in the box with the rest of my Sabbat gear waiting until the 1st December when it will be used to light my next Advent candle which, as I live in a flat with no fireplace, I use instead of a Yule log. And all my Christmas cards have been taken down and sorted into two piles – those I wish to keep and those that can be recycled.
Christmas and the New Year are definitely over, so why do all this yesterday, and why celebrate by posting about it? Well in the Christian liturgical calendar 6th January is commonly known as Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Three Kings or Magi to Jesus and the presentation of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Him. It’s also the last day you’re allowed/supposed to have Christmas decorations up, which is why I’ve taken all mine down, as it causes bad luck otherwise. Epiphany marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas (despite the fact that carol is only ever sung before Christmas) and used to be one of the Days of Estate celebrated by the English royal Court where the king and queen would dine wearing their crowns. Nowadays our celebrations for Christmas last from 1st December to 25th December, occasionally to Boxing Day on the 26th, and after that ‘Christmas’ is over and prep for the New Year begins. However, in the past (even up to Victorian times) Christmas decorations only went up on Christmas Eve, and the celebrations for Christmas started on the Day itself and lasted to Epiphany. Advent, after all, is a time of anticipation in the same way that Lent is – it is a solemn and sober time reflected in the colours used in the church and on priests’ vestments (purple, for penitence and preparation). True, there is a lot of joy in the traditional celebrations of Advent (birth is generally seen as more positive than death), but, like Lent, it was also a time of fasting and/or abstaining from eating flesh. Which is why Christmas Day was only the first day for feasting and celebration instead of the last.
Although there are probably as many Epiphany traditions as there are Christian denominations, the only one I ever heard of while growing up was the ‘take your Christmas decorations down by 6th January at the latest’. Which is how I’ve celebrated it the last two years and never thought any more about it. I’d known about the Mediaeval and Early Modern (Tudor and Stuart) royal ceremonial traditions for over seventeen years, what with being a mediaeval historian and all, but particular church ceremonies weren’t really mentioned unless connected to the behaviour of the Court, and I had absolutely no basis for incorporating those into my personal religious practices. However, during the course of last year I discovered a tradition of ‘chalking the doors’ on Epiphany, as a form of house-blessing for the following year. On Epiphany the front door of the house is written on using a piece of (usually blessed) chalk, using the pattern ’20 + C + M + B + 18′. The numbers on either side make up the current year, the crosses between everything are a symbol of Christ, and the three letters have a double meaning. One is the initials of the names of the Magi that visited – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (although the Bible never mentions a number aside from the use of the plural, and no names are given either, yay mediaeval theology!) – and the other is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat or ‘may Christ bless this house’.
I really liked this idea, and, as I’d protected and blessed my flat the day we finally exchanged contracts and had plans to redo the wards over the Christmas/New Year period when my flatmate was away, I decided to add this tradition to my own religious practices. After all, you take your blessings where you find them, right? And as a Christo-Pagan I like the idea of having my flat protected by both Pagan and Christian rituals. So, having already re-warded my flat, yesterday evening I prepared to chalk the door – apart from I have no chalk. I do, however, have some holy water which I picked up on my last visit to Westminster Cathedral, which I had also used during my house warding a few days previously.
So, out came my chalice again along with my Methodist Worship Book. Now unlike Catholicism for example, where it seems pretty much expected that everyone will own a Missal or Missal-like book, containing the liturgy of the Mass along with other prayers such as the Rosary, the same is not true of Methodism. While there’s nothing stopping a Methodist from buying a copy of the Worship Book, and sections of it are avilable to buy seperately, most of us just don’t bother. There’s always enough copies of it in church for one thing, and for another it doesn’t get used very often. I’m sure there are Methodist churches out there that do use it every Sunday, but all the ones I’ve been to or know of have used it on high days and holidays – baptisms, weddings, funeral services, the Covenant service, and the occasional Communion service (Communion – what Methodists call the Mass or Eucharist – happens once a month for most churches, so an occasional one of those is very rare). As a result of such infrequent use very few households own one, even my parents don’t – they just borrow one from church when they know they’re Stewarding on a special day or a Sunday when a visiting Minister wants to use the book. I own one because I’m not always able to get to church (mostly laziness, partly when I’m away) and I wanted to be able to read through the services even if I couldn’t participate, and also because there are sections on morning and evening prayer which I am trying to incorporate into my daily life more often. And as an added bonus (because I bought the full book rather than chunks of it) I get all the services Methodists ever use, including An Order for the Blessing of a Home. Now it’s entirely possible that I meant to use this as part of the massive renewal of the protections around my flat on New Year’s Eve and utterly forgot to do so, but let’s pretend that I meant to use it on Epiphany as part of my ‘chalking’ the door the whole time shall we? Cheers.
So, out came the book and my chalice, and I sat in front of my altar with the candles lit and read through the service. Now there’s a rubric near the end that begins ‘here some symbolic act may be made’ followed by a list of examples, which would be a brilliant time for me to go and scibble all over my front door with wet fingers if it wasn’t for my altar candles are really close to the wooden footboard of my bed and there’s no way I’m not being in the room when they’re burning. So instead my ‘symbolic act’ was to pour some holy water into my chalice, followed by the rest of the service and snuffing all the candles. Then it was time to go finger-paint the door. Almost all the examples I’d found on the internet have the numbers and letters either at the top of the door or just above the door, but I decided to use the middle part of my door which was slightly easier to reach, roughly the same level as the circle I’d cast round my flat, and where the layout of the panels provided enough space. What I probably should have done was go outside, shut the door, mark the door, then come back inside through the blessed doorway, but instead I opted for the
lazy concise version of opening the door all the way and wedging it there while I drew on it. I then said a prayer, drained the chalice, and shut the door, happy with a job well done and a fully protected house. And now that Yule, Christmas, and New Year’s are over, I get a couple of weeks off before I have to start prepping for Imbolc, and the annual Spring Cleaning which follows. Urrgh…