The war on Epiphany

magi 01I'm sure we all enjoyed the relative downturn in this year's War on Christmas. One personal downside was that I didn't get a chance to write about the war on Advent and the rest of the liturgical calendar. Why is Christmas always singled out? In a very real sense, though, the War on Christmas is alive as ever. Christmas is a liturgical season lasting 12 days. We're in that season right now.

I'm in Colorado at the moment and every time I wish folks a Merry Christmas they seem to think I'm a bit behind with my greetings. It is very hard being a liturgical Christian celebrating the penitential season of Advent when everyone else is yukking it up with holiday parties and crazed shopping. And then when we're ready to party, everyone else thinks Christmas is over and done with.

It is into this holiday mix that USA Today's Mindy Fetterman offered a business story alleging that some retailers are looking at ways to further exploit the liturgical calendar:

If you think the holiday shopping season is over, you're wrong. A growing number of retailers are promoting the Hispanic tradition of celebrating Three Kings Day every Jan. 6 as a way to extend the buying season past Christmas and connect with Hispanic customers.

El Dia de los Reyes celebrates the day in Christian tradition when the three wise men visited the baby Jesus. Known as the Epiphany, the day is as important as Christmas in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain and many Latin American countries. Children put their shoes out the night before or leave grass for the wise men's camels. They wake the next day to unwrap presents.

I love that the business section is covering this and it's a very good idea for a news piece.

While the focus of the piece is on sales to Hispanic customers, it must be noted that Jan. 6 is a special day for more than Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, etc. In Western churches, Epiphany marks the coming of wise men bringing gifts to visit the Christ child, who by so doing "reveal" Jesus to the world as Lord and King. In Eastern churches, the day is called Theophany and commemorates Jesus' baptism.

The hook for this business story, however, is pushing an additional two weeks of shopping on Hispanic customers. It is interesting how much retailers have always driven the American calendar and directed Christians to decide which holidays are most important. Easter has never quite caught on as a gift-giving time and as a result it's much less culturally important than Christmas even though its spiritual significance is unparalleled. Three Kings Day, however, is a different story:

For the first time, actors dressed as the three wise men began wandering through Florida Mall in Orlando on Sunday and posing with children for photos on a repurposed Santa display. "Now we have three thrones," laughs general manager Brian Peters.

Wal-Mart, (WMT) which began promoting the tradition in a big way last year, is expanding. This year, the three kings are visiting Wal-Marts in the Southwest, and more than 300 Wal-Marts have displays and products geared to the celebration. And Kmart (SHLD) is sponsoring the Three Kings parade in Miami on Jan. 13 and an appearance by Jose Feliciano at its Bronx, New York, store Thursday.

"It makes all the business sense in the world if you can extend the selling season," says Alex Lopez Negrete, CEO of Lopez Negrete Communications, the nation's second-largest Hispanic marketing company. The firm worked with Wal-Mart on its Three Kings campaign.

Just because the story appears in the business pages doesn't mean the reporter couldn't have gotten some feedback from religious types about how they feel about retailers attempting to capitalize on the liturgical calendar. Reporters may be surprised by the response.

Last year I wrote something for the Los Angeles Times about the secularization of Christmas in America. One of my favorite responses came from a pastor in Indiana who told me he began his Christmas Eve sermon thusly:

"Pulpits all over Christendom will again be decrying the secularization of Christmas. I suppose I can't blame them. Christian preachers are bound to fantasize about the Church being doctrinally and liturgically pure and all the world loving it for it. But I am enough a historian and a realist to know that if it wasn't for the secularization of Christmas we'd have a lot fewer people here tonight. If the Church has given the world a holiday for nostalgia and guilt-abating good works, even if the coming of Jesus Christ is missed, the world has given us a once-a-year opportunity to proclaim that coming. If the option to the secularization of Christmas is that Christmas be as popular and well-attended as Ascension, I'd say hurray for secularization, and only wish that I could come up with a way to get Madison Avenue to promote other Holy Days.

Other Holy Days, of course, don't so easily give themselves over to nostalgia. It is hard to be cute about Good Friday."

Whether or not retailers cater to liturgical Christians, we still celebrate 12 days of Christmas followed by the Epiphany season. Reporters should not overlook the calendars of the world's oldest and largest churches.

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