This Saturday night 5 January the figures of the Three Kings will be seen arriving in towns and villages all over Spain. The street processions are big family occasions.
Another feature of today is enjoying cutting the Twelfth Night cake.
In Spain it is a cake ring called Rosca de Reyes symbolising a king’s crown. Inside is baby figurine. The French have their Gâteau des Rois.o or Gallette des Rois with a small feve (or charm) inside.
England had a similar custom well into the 19th century. The English Twelfth Cake contained a bean. The person finding the bean in their slice of cake was proclaimed king for the evening. The custom died out when the Twelfth Night cake began to be served on the 25 December and became our Christmas cake.
But a Twelfth Cake was enjoyed, although a little early, on Thursday by the 42nd Street cast at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Another is being cut this evening by the Vic-Wells Association at The Old Vic in Waterloo.
Also tonight, at St James’s Church Spanish Place, Marylebone W1, the Order of Malta is organising the blessing of Epiphany water and chalk at 7pm. You can take the chalk home to write a welcoming C+M+B over the front door for the Three Kings: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
Sunday is The Epiphany when we celebrate in church the arrival of the Wise Men who will now be found as part of the crib scene.
The service of Nine Lessons and Carols this afternoon at King’s College Cambridge has an extra resonance.
It is the last time that the choir will be conducted by Stephen Cleobury who has been responsible for the music over the last 37 years.
He was appointed Director of Music in 1982.
It is also the 100th anniversary of the Nine Lessons and Carols service being held at King’s College on Christmas Eve and the 90th anniversary of the first broadcast of the service from the chapel.
The service, invented at Truro Cathedral and first heard outside Cornwall at St Mary Lambeth, is now the start of Christmas for millions of people in the UK and abroad.
In America it is often the background to Christmas Eve breakfast.
When does Advent become Christmas? We all have our own moment: 3pm when BBC Radio 4 broadcasts the service from King’s and the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City is heard; vespers; evening prayer; the First Mass of Christmas about 6pm or Midnight Mass.
Whatever the moment, it is the start of tomorrow and the twelve days of Christmas.
“Buns are expressive of religious devotion quite as much as anything else,” says Melanie McDonagh writing about St Lucy’s Day in The Tablet.
Today is St Lucy’s Day, an Advent stepping stone, and in Sweden most people will be enjoying a least one saffron bread roll called a Lussikatter.
Parents of young children will have their first bun early in the morning when the daughter of the house, dressed as St Lucy with lights on her head, enters their bedroom with coffee and Lussikatters and singing the Sankta Lucia song.
Some young women in the Lucia costume will have a crown of real candles flickering on their head as they lead a procession in church today.
The tradition recalls the the claim that St Lucy wore candles on her head to keep her hands free to carry food as she visited persecuted Christians hiding in Sicilian catacombs.
Lucy died for her faith at the hands of the Roman authorities in 304.
Today she is a symbol of the light of Christ to be celebrated at Christmas and again at Easter.
There are big Lucia services today in her home town of Siracusa, Naples where the song originated and Stockholm.
***Bageriet Swedish baker in Rose Street, off Long Acre in London’s Covent Garden, is selling Lussikatter buns today.
In 1885 Father Christmas made his first appearance in a British department store.
This was Beales in Bournemouth and his annual arrival during the 20th century was much like the appearance in procession of St Nicholas in the main square of Nancy in Lorraine last Saturday.
The French town was crowded with families seeing St Nicholas arrive in a carriage for a balcony appearance. Lots of letters had been written to St Nicholas and posted in special post boxes just as children used to in Beales when writing to Father Christmas.
Father Christmas is derived from Nicholas who is also responsible for the Christmas stocking tradition.
St Nicholas from Turkey is an example of Christian charity in action and today he is patron not only of of children (of course) but pawnbrokers. apothecaries, parish clerks and sailors.
Cities adopting Nicholas as patron include Aberdeen, Liverpool, Portsmouth and New York.
Major observances of St Nicholas Day today Thursday 6 December take place at Bari in Italy, Brussels in Belgium, Demre in Turkey and Alicante in Spain.
***See St Nicholas (looking much like Father Christmas) arrive in style at Canterbury Cathedral this Saturday at 1pm.
Leigh Hatts, author of Keeping Advent & Christmas, is calling on churches and businesses to discover the riches of Advent and not celebrate Christmas too early.
“Putting up Christmas trees and decorations before Remembrance Sunday or Black Friday is devaluing Christmas,” says Leigh Hatts.
“First comes the Advent season of Old Testament prophesies and expectation with John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.
“This is the time to keep Advent which begins this week.
“Christmas really starts on Christmas Eve and lasts for twelve days whilst we wait for the Three Kings to arrive on The Epiphany, Sunday 6 January.
“Our fellow Christians in Europe tend to keep this climax with parties and outdoor processions whilst we in the British Isles overwhelmingly ignore it.”
“The festival days following 25 December explain the enormity of what we recognise at Christmas and is our real time for celebration.”
Leigh Hatts, who welcomes the Church of England’s own 12 day Follow the Star initiative, is also suggesting that in future years churches consider “shifting Christmas from Advent to the real Christmas dates” and avoid having a any suspension of daily services once Christmas Day worship is over.
Those supporting the Slow Christmas campaign are being invited to Tweet using the #SlowChristmas hashtag.
“This can be the beginning of a slow change to a more authentic Christmas.”