Digby Anderson

Go to work on Christmas Day...

You can avoid barbarity and blasphemy, says Digby Anderson, by making the Epiphany your big feast

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Good generals know when it is time to give up an impossible defence and seek a more secure position to hold. It is time to give up Christmas. It is now utterly overrun by the combined forces of sentimentality, irreligion, bad manners and worse taste.

I do not say that on ‘the day’, as it is now called, we shouldn’t mount the odd raid to attend church — though the same hostile forces have long been within its gates too, infantilising its liturgy, replacing its sacred music with ditties and recorders, and plastering its walls with the scrawlings and daubings of children. They are especially noticeable at Christmas. Be very careful which church you go to and at what time. There is no reason either why we shouldn’t snatch a few rations to fuel our tactical retreat, a few peppers roasted and stuffed with brandade, a mixed fry-up of partridge, teal and pheasant with broken green olives, garlic and parsley, a spot of Stilton and a few bots of Reserva. One might even manage a simple saunter in the fresh air: the countryside can be quite empty between 13.00 and 15.30 hours when They are all at the trough. But, these perfunctory observances apart, we should realise that the cause is lost, at least on this day. The 25th is no longer ours. Best really to offer to go into the office between early Mass and late dinner. And on Boxing Day too.

We need another fortress to invest and hold. St Nicholas’s day, 6 December, won’t do. It has nothing of the importance of the 25th. We need a day, or two, to have proper religion and a good blow-out with like-minded chums; more important without the noise, trash and stench of Blair’s disgusting, shopaholic, football-, youth- and sex-obsessed Britons all ‘moving forward’ all over the place. Anyway, poor old Nicholas has already been co-opted by the enemy. Not only is he used to justify an orgy of presents and the shopping required to buy them; not only is he used for yet more attention and indulgence to be lavished on kiddies; but he is also foremost in Their campaign to subvert proper celebration by anticipation. I met a chap in the sauna a while back in late summer who had just had his application to be Santa accepted. He and his five Santa colleagues — and minders required to see that no paedophilia took place — were due to start on 3 November. I suspect the store would have liked to start earlier, but there was the filthy innovation of Hallowe’en to be exploited first, and the punters can’t concentrate on two things at once. Nor is 1 January a candidate. It is a very unEnglish day and the ceremonies associated with it are largely Scotch, stupid and occasionally smutty — in both senses.

No, we march on the Epiphany. We shall take it with ease. None of Them has even heard of it, let alone visited it. They don’t know that it is an older feast than the Nativity. It’s arguably of more theological importance to us since, like the Nativity, a feast of the Incarnation, it celebrates Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles. But the best thing about it is that we can keep it undisturbed. Precisely because They started their Baal fest so early, by 6 January they are sure to be exhausted and, since the Epiphany falls this year on Tuesday, a weekday, back at work. The only thing They might know about it is that it is the day the decorations come down. What could be more fitting than that, as their frayed, shop-made colours are hauled down, our patiently Gloy-gummed standards should be raised?

Epiphany comes with at least two traditions of its own. There is the chalking up of the names of the Magi — Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar — on the doorposts of Christian houses. And there is the Epiphany crib. Epiphany is best served by a huge multi-cast Spanish crib. The Holy House contains the Holy Family with the Kings. There can be the odd sheep inside, but outside there can be camels or any other oriental beasts, plus hens, rabbits, hares, ducks, geese, pigs and other animals of a farmyard. There should be a well — though not with a battery-powered bucket lift — and all the shops of a village: the baker, the butcher and the wine-press. Pigeons should be on the roof and at least one cockerel at full blast. I stretch a Biblical point and have a few angels on the roof among the pigeons, too. Do as you please about that, but there must, far above the roof-squad, be a large, bright star. The whole is set in a valley of rolling hills. You might want to add a band or orchestra of some sort (these figures are best found in Italy, not Spain) and the French add a priest in soutane and biretta and, for some obscure reason, flourishing an umbrella. Obviously, the location, purchase, assembly and collation of the figures and set provide weeks of happy and worthwhile work for adults and children. The unveiling and blessing are ceremonies in their own right.

Cards present no problem. Simply choose from among those sold as ‘Christmas cards’ the ones that depict the Magi. And I would suggest an additional little ceremony. Christmas has been so liable to sentimentalisation partly because of the baby-Jesus business. Among all the insistence that ‘Christmas is above all a day for the children, isn’t it?’, it is forgotten or perhaps forbidden to say that Christmas used also to be a feast of Wisdom. Its coming is announced with the antiphon ‘O Sapientia’ and its Gospel of the day is St John’s entirely kiddie-free text about ‘the Word made flesh’.

If Christmas should be, to an extent, about wisdom, Epiphany is above all about it. It is Christmas for grown-ups. Earthly philosophy in the persons of the Magi kneels before heavenly wisdom. They have brought gifts not for a child, but for a king (gold), a god (incense) and one who is to die (myrrh). The Magi ask about life, death and eternity, subjects for grown-ups. As John Knox put it, ‘They are wise men interrupting our Feast of Fools.’ So the suitable present to give at Epiphany is not a computer game, a thong or even patterned socks. It is a nicely bound book of wisdom.

And the grub? Well, the Kings, being foreigners, surely mean we can get away from English food. They are supposed to come from Persia, but that is obviously out. It’s all very well being authentic but the food should be of the best, not things stewed with dried apricots and nuts. The obvious answer is Spain. They know how to cater for the Tres Reyes, which they observe with enthusiasm. We could start with Serrano ham thinly sliced with a bottle of manzanilla, then a selection of Portobello, Pleurotus and trumpets, a dish of clams in white wine and piment