On the 3rd Day of Christmas, the Gifts Keep Coming

Holy Mother Church gives more gifts to unwrap today

The Last Supper, fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480

Today, we celebrate the feast of Saint John the Apostle, a true gift to the Church who is traditionally considered the author of the Fourth Gospel, three Epistles or New Testament letters (1 John, 2 John & 3 John) and the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation. His writings are very personal accounts and are considered some of the finest in the New Testament. And because of his depth, John is often referred to as the “eagle of theology,” soaring to levels that other writers did not enter.

Such personal writings were no doubt influenced by the intimate relationship he developed with Jesus. St. John was a fisherman called to follow Jesus — he traveled everywhere with him, becoming so close as to be known as the beloved disciple. With his brother James and Simon Peter, John was a witness of the Transfiguration (see Matthew 17:1-6Mark 9:1-8Luke 9:28-36, and John 1:14). St. John also took part in the Last Supper and is represented as the one resting on the heart of Christ here in this fresco by artist Ghirlandaio — an image I mentally cling to when feeling overwhelmed by the “stuff” of life.

By standing at the foot of the cross, the Apostle John is the only one of the Twelve not to forsake Jesus in the hour of his Passion. Jesus entrusts John to be the guardian of his mother, Our Lady, and John took her into his home. In years to come John was exiled to the island of Patmos in Greece where it is said he wrote the Book of Revelation.

Religious Symbolism of the Three French Hens?

The Twelve Days of Christmas are the days from Christmas, December 25, until the beginning of Epiphany, January 6. Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the time the three Wise Men came bearing gifts to the Christ child. Since Epiphany is celebrated on a Sunday in the United States, the specific “days of Christmas” may fluctuate each year.

In the popular song The Twelve Days of Christmas, three French hens are the gift given on the third day. It is said they symbolize the three wisemen bearing gifts. I was struck by a story I read in the 2011 Magnificat Advent Companion that highlighted several Christmas traditions from around the world — the following touches on an Italian Epiphany tradition.

“In Italy, the sense of anticipation does not fade in the days following Christmas, for Italians eagerly look forward to the celebration of the Epiphany on January 6. In the mountain village of Rivisondoli, nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, the eve of the Epiphany is celebrated with a living reenactment of the first Christmas on a massive scale. Up to 600 people, mostly villagers but some visitors as well, are given acting parts in this Nativity play. The actors make their way through deep snow, often with more snow falling from the night sky, as they descend a mountain slope to the cave that serves as the manger scene. The Blessed Virgin Mary arrives on a donkey, cradling the Christ child in her arms (a real infant) as Joseph accompanies her. The Three Kings come on horseback.

“The traditional day in Italy for exchanging gifts in honor of the Christ child is the solemnity of the Epiphany, inspired by the gifts of the Magi. Italian children are told to hang their stockings on the preceding evening in expectation of a visitor in the night, La Befana. The legend of La Befana relates that as the Magi were journeying they sought directions to Bethlehem from an elderly woman named Befana and urged her to join them in their quest. Busy with her broom, she declined, but afterwards regretted her refusal and set out to find the Christ child. Failing to find him, she has continued her quest for centuries, wandering from one home to another in the hope of bringing him a gift. Ever unsuccessful, she nevertheless leaves gifts for the children of the house.”

So here in the United States as radio stations stop playing Christmas hymns, neighbors rush to take down the Christmas tree and trimmings, and retailers stock shelves with Valentine’s Day gifts, many across the world have just started celebrating. And on this third day of Christmas, they still eagerly await the symbolic arrival of the Magi bearing gifts in honor of the Christ child.

For further reading on the the legend of La Befana, check out the book The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie dePaola, an award-winning children’s literature writer and illustrator.

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