Today is, with one exception, the end of the Christmas season. Those who follow Eastern Orthodox traditions will celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on Thursday. Other Christians recognize today as Little Christmas, Kings Day, Three Kings Day, Twelfth Night and Epiphany. It is said to be the day the magi reached the creche and bestowed upon the baby Jesus the first Christmas gifts.
A more esoteric interpretation is that it is the moment of illumination when the divinity of the Christ child was revealed to the gentiles, a meaning that has evolved over the centuries to embrace almost any moment of personal illumination or revelation. The day coincides with early pagan festivals that celebrated the lengthening of the days that began on the solstice and was, by this time, apparent to everyone. I think of Epiphany as a celebration of light itself.
There are countless traditions that mark Epiphany and all of them are quieter than the annual consumer frenzy that Christmas in America has become. In this country, most observances take place in church and here and there in homes that prefer the tradition.
In Italy, Befana rides a broom as she visits children on the eve of the holiday, leaving candy-filled stockings and presents. In France, some children enjoy a present a day from Christmas through Epiphany. Wherever the holiday is celebrated, there are versions of a Kings Cake, most of which contain a tiny hidden doll or bean. The one who finds it enjoys certain rewards and incurs certain obligations, from being made the holiday's king or queen to hosting the following year's fete.
In New Orleans, every supermarket has stacks of colorful wreath-shaped kings cakes for sale from Twelfth Night through Ash Wednesday. There are at least two Epiphany parades and the first ball of the Carnival season is held Jan. 6 by the Twelfth Night Revelers. All the local radio stations speak of the holiday and it is not uncommon for shopkeepers to wish "Happy Epiphany" to their customers. If you want to celebrate the holiday in good company, New Orleans is the place to be. I was lucky to be there last year.
This year, I am at home, starting my day at the Santa Rosa farmers market, preparing a big dinner for family and a few close friends and trying to get all the presents wrapped before everyone arrives, because even though I have 12 extra days, I still do most everything at the last possible minute. What would any holiday be without a bit of stress?
Near the conclusion of the Bracebridge Dinner pageant, a Christmas tradition at Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel, a silver punchbowl of wassail, steam rising from it like fog from an icy lake, is carried along the red carpet to the stage as guests are served espresso cups full of executive chef Percy Whatley's version. The dark rich thick liquid is the best wassail I have ever tasted. It can be enjoyed by both children and those who do not drink alcohol, as the small amount of alcohol in this recipe is boiled off long before the winter punch is ready. I have adapted this recipe from chef Whatley's by adding a piece of vanilla bean because I love the layer of flavor it contributes. Feel free to leave it out, as the wassail is delicious with or without it.