Trettondagen literally means “day 13” and is the thirteenth day after Christmas, i.e. January 6th. Known in English as the Epiphany, it commemorates the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God, and when the Three Wise Men came to the Manger in Bethlehem. In Sweden it is a red day (an official holiday) with a day off of work if it falls on a weekday.
Name day celebrations are popular in Sweden and on any standard yearly calendar you will find specific names associated with each day of the year. For instance, December 13th is the Lucia celebration as well as the name day for Lucia. The names associated with trettondagen are the names of the Three Wise Men, Kasper, Melker, and Baltsar.
Although today there isn’t much notable celebrating taking place on trettondagen, historically it was a different story. During the late Middle Ages in Italy, Germany and France, renactments of the Three Wise Men’s visit to Bethlehem became popular. Growing out of that tradition, during the 1600s Swedish youth in both cities and villages participated in going from house to house, under direction of their principal, to sing carols while dressed as the Three Wise Men and bearing a large, brightly lit star. Sometimes Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, and shepherds were represented as well. For their efforts the performers could receive cash, or gifts, intended to help the boys support their studies during the coming semester. It was through this tradition that the term stjärngossar, or “star boys” originated. In time, uncoordinated groups of wayward singers and performers tried to take advantage of the Christmas generosity that was shown to the organized groups. It became a nuisance to deal with the unofficial groups looking for handouts and by the beginning of the 1900s the stjärngossar tradition died out. Today stjärngossar survive only as the back end of the Lucia procession sporting pointy, white cone hats with stars.
Trettondagen was known as the point when the Christmas julbord food had all but run out. It was also the time when the spirits of deceased family members, who had left their resting places to return home during the night from Christmas Eve going into Christmas Day, returned to their graves. In many Christian cultures the Epiphany is the official end to Christmas, but in Sweden the holiday spirit carries on until Knut, or January 13th, which is 20 days after Christmas. In the dark Swedish winter, who can argue with an extension of the holiday season?