In traditional Catholic societies, the Christmas season lasted through Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, marking the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. Jan 5, the 12th day of Christmas, was also a festive day, reflected in William Shakespeare's comedy, "12th Night."
As Garrison Keillor notes in his Writer's Almanac Friday, James Joyce's famous short story "The Dead" revolves around an epiphany feast in Dublin, Ireland, in 1904. Joyce also used the term "epiphany" to refer to the moment in a short story or novel when a character's true nature is revealed.
Since I first read "The Dead" many years ago, I've reread the story every January. I just finished it once more, this time through the Literature Network's online version rather than pulling out my copy of "The Dubliners," Joyce's brilliant short story collection that ends with "The Dead."
The story begins at the annual Epiphany supper hosted by two elderly sisters and their niece. Their lives center around music, one of the story's main currents. The Morkan sisters' nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and his wife, Gretta, are the story's main characters. The memorably sketched party guests serve as a microcosm of the larger Irish culture.
While the characters are like old friends, the story surprises me with new revelations each year. How Joyce achieves such artistic depths from ordinary people and a simple plot remains a mystery. The dialogue, mundane on the surface, strikes fathoms of meaning.
When I read the story, even on a computer screen, I hear their voices, the shuffle of their chairs, the sound of their music. I see them and the rooms they inhabit. The story's meaning is that they, and all of us, are among the dead, but they magically come alive each year through Joyce's language.