Eagle celebrates 12th day of Christmas with Jan. 6 Christmas tree bonfire | VailDaily.com

Eagle celebrates 12th day of Christmas with Jan. 6 Christmas tree bonfire

When they bundle up and head out to the 12th Night Christmas tree bonfire Saturday night, Jan. 6, Eagle residents will be the latest participants in a community holiday tradition that dates back 65 years.

Just as the town's people did back on Jan. 6, 1953, Eagle area residents will enjoy a simple tradition that has spanned six and a half decades. Residents gather for the informal get-together — sipping hot chocolate and chatting with neighbors. Kids skate by the light of the fire that burns up discarded Christmas trees and the glow from the blaze can be seen from miles away.

Back on Jan. 8, 1953, the Eagle Valley Enterprise noted "The ancient custom of burning the yule trees on the 12th night following Christmas was observed in Eagle Tuesday night when around 100 adults and children gathered at the skating pond in southwest town to witness the burning of a huge pile of Christmas trees and enjoy skating on the town's pond."

Not much has changed, except that the bonfire location is no longer in southwest Eagle — not because it has moved but because the town has grown up around it. Town Park is now decidedly in the middle of Eagle, not on the southern or western edge.

Dr. L.W. Simmons was credited with coming up with the 12th Night plan. No doubt the doctor would be tickled that his modest suggestion has weathered six decades.

"Simmons stated that he hoped the custom would be carried on next year and that plans would be made far enough in advance that more persons could participate," noted the Enterprise back in 1953.

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Through the years, the Eagle Lions Club members have been in charge of supplying hot chocolate for the bonfire and the Greater Eagle Fire Department has been called in to do the actual tree burning. Many locals recall how the late Don Price would organize skating contests during 12th Night and award quarters to the winners.

Historic roots

Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany — the religious holiday that celebrates the arrival of the three wise men to worship the baby Jesus. The trio visited Jesus not at the manger, as popular tradition says, but a few days later.

Although Epiphany has solemn roots, through the ages 12th Night developed some jovial activities. King Alfred, a ninth-century English monarch, was a true believer of the holiday season. He decreed the Christmas season would include Dec. 25 and the 12 days following it, thus beginning the 12 days of Christmas.

In Elizabethan England, 12th Night was similar to April Fools Day. Children played tricks on passers-by and bakeries sold special 12th's cakes decorated with stars, castles, kings, dragons, palaces and churches. People would drink cider and call out "wes hal," meaning good health. This toast evolved in to the word wassail.

William Shakespeare wrote a comedy, "12th Night," about the holiday, reflecting its joyous mood. Legend says the play was first performed on Jan. 6, 1601, at Whitehall Palace when Queen Elizabeth entertained a distinguished Italian guest, the Duke of Bracciano.

Syrian legend says wild animals stay in dens and caves on Epiphany Eve and at midnight trees kneel in adoration of Jesus. This legend also says wishes are fulfilled on 12th Night.

Latin cultures regard Epiphany as both a solemn religious festival and the beginning of the pre-Lent season. Mexico's greatest pilgrimage is the Epiphany march to the shrine of the miraculous Lord of Chalma in the valley of southwest of Mexico City.

While 12th Night revelry has declined in popularity, the holiday is still celebrated in parts of England. The trip of the magi is re-enacted each year at the Chapel Royal at St. James Palaces in London. The traditional gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are ceremonially presented at the church alter.

In the present Christian tradition, Epiphany has a threefold meaning. It celebrates the appearance of the wise men, Jesus' baptism and his first miracle of the changing water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana. The three events reportedly occurred on the same date in different years.

If you go …

What: 12th Night bonfire.

When: Saturday, Jan.6, 6 p.m.

Where: Eagle Town Park.

More information: Members of the Greater Eagle Fire Department will oversee the tree-burning and activites will include skating and socializing. Bring your discarded tree on the evening of the bonfire or drop it off at the growing pile at Eagle Town Park earlier in the week.