Christmas and Epiphany (Denha)

The first common feast celebrated by all Christians is Easter – the Resurrection of our Lord. The second feast that developed in the whole of Christianity is January 6th, the Manifestation of our Lord, the manifestation of Divinity in the humanity of Jesus. This feast first started in the Alexandrian Church. January 6th was the feast of god Aeon, the god of light for Alexandrians. Gradually, all the eastern Churches and finally the western Church accepted this feast. The western Church, however, changed the meaning of the celebration giving emphasis to the visit of magi.

The word 'Yalda' commonly refers to the Persian Winter Solstice Celebration. It is not clear when and how the world 'Yalda'; entered the Persian language. The massive persecution of the early Christians in Rome brought many Christian refugees into the Sassanid Empire and it is very likely that these Christians introduced and popularized 'Yalda' in Iran. It is originally a Syriac word that has been imported into Persian language from Syriac. Its meaning is birth and refered to the birth of Jesus Christ.

December 25 as Christmas started first in the western Church most probably in the third century. It was the great feast day of "Solis Invictis", the "Unconquered Sun" for the Romans. The sun god is dying daily as it moves to the south and the extreme death or darkness reported in those days in Rome in December 23rd night. On 24th sun begins its journey towards north and thus the 24th night and day of 25th the celebration of the unconquered sun. When Christianity got freedom in Rome, this feast was substituted with the birth of Jesus, Christmas. Slowly several of the eastern Churches also accepted this feast. Anyway both these feasts were considered as complimentary during the early centuries.

The earliest record available regarding the lifestyle of St Thomas Christians of India could be the narriations of Joseph the Indian*. His narrations show that the St Thomas Christians observed the fast of Advent and celebrated the Nativity and Epiphany of our Lord.

In the Syro-Malabar Church the preparation for Christmas (Nativity of Jesus) begins almost a month in advance with a 25 day fast that ends on Christmas eve. This period almost coincides with the beginning of the liturgical year and the first season of the liturgical year which is known as “Subbara”, the 'weeks of Annunciation'.

It is common for families to make crèches in their gardens that actually look like miniature cattle-sheds. Many parishes have prizes for the best crèche. In recent years, carol singing and santa claus have been introduced, all in full western style. The midnight Qurbana celebration is the most festive occasion. The practice of lighting fire or Theeyuzhalicha is done outside the main entrance of the church. This practice is unique and is a symbol of the fire that kept baby Jesus warm.

Saint Thomas Christians celebrate Denha (Epiphany) as a great feast to commemorate the Baptism of Jesus. The liturgical season Denhakalam (Weeks of Epiphany) commemorates the second revelation at the Baptism and the following public life of Jesus. Denha is celebrated on January 6th by Syro-Malabarians in two ways - Pindiperunnal ("Plantain trunk feast") and Rakkuliperunal ("feast with a night bath").

Pindiperunal is common mostly in the northern areas like Trichur region. A specially decorated plantain trunk is erected in front of houses with many torches attached to it. On the previous night of Denha celebration, the family members used to go around it singing a Syriac hymn "El Paiya", which means "God is light".

Rakkuliperunal is popular in the southern areas like Pala region. In imitation of Jesus' Baptism, people used to perform a ritual bath in nearby ponds or rivers singing psalms and other religious hymns on the previous night (ravu) of the feast of Denha. Thus, the feast began to be known as Rakkuliperunal or 'feast with a night bath'.

*Joseph the Indian could be the first St Thomas Christian from India, who visited Europe in 1501 AD with Pedro Alvares Cabral. He met Pope Alexander VI. His narrations gave first hand information about the lifestyle of St Thomas Christians and even Hindus and Jews lived in the Malabar Coast.

Credits: Mr Mathew Mailaparampil and Fr Varghese Pathikulangara, CMI.

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