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Churches celebrate Epiphany with bonfire

The official end of the Christmas season was noted in Preston on Jan. 6 when parishioners from Saint James Episcopal Church and sister church Grace Episcopal in Yantic, gathered on the Saint James grounds for a ceremonial bonfire to honor the Epiphany.

“It’s the day on the Christian calendar when the Three Kings follow the Star, and find the baby Jesus in the manger, determining the Christ Child has been born,” said the Rev. Kim Litsey, who leads both congregations. “This is the Great Epiphany, that the new light has come into the world.”

To symbolize that, Saint James has had a bonfire for at least the last 20 years. Donated Christmas trees and wreaths, including those that had been on display in the church, were thrown into the fire.

But that’s not all.

“We also invited people to write down things they wanted to put behind them in 2020, and their hopes for 2021, and then throw them into the fire,” said Litsey.

Long-time parishioner Janet Harris of Preston contributed some torn church linens for the blaze. “I’m on the altar guild,” she said. “We have some old linens from the church that need to be disposed of. They’re old and tattered, so time to let go.”

In recent years, the Epiphany bonfire has also served as a retirement ceremony for old. worn American flags. Boy Scouts Max Wotring. 17, and Michael Peck, 16, from Troop 75 in Preston, performed the ceremony.

“Usually such flag-burning observances are reserved for Memorial Day or Veterans Day, but we decided a few years ago to include it here as well,” Phillip Ludlow, the troop’s Eagle coach, said. “People either bring their torn flags to the church or to the scouts.”

The idea of a bonfire to note Epiphany seems to be a novel idea.

“It was new to me when I came to Saint James three years ago,” said Litsey. “There is the new fire at the Easter Vigil to symbolize Christ has risen. Fire is cleansing, and it represents new life.”

The bonfire also represented one of the few opportunities for parishioners to see each other in person during the pandemic, though participants did wear masks and maintained social distancing.

An indoor soup supper and prayer service, though, that usually followed the bonfire had to be canceled.

“Hoping to be together for Easter,” said Litsey. “It may have to be an outdoor service, though, depending on the weather. Easter is early this year (April 4).”

Saint James and Grace Episcopal have been conducting virtual services, for the most part, during the pandemic. Litsey says the churches may still offer online worship, along with in-person services, after the pandemic ends.

“There are those that are unable to come to church. The on-line services have also attracted viewers from Georgia and Canada. There’s no substitute to being in the presence of other people, but virtual services are a good second.”

Kevin Gorden lives in Norwich.

Editor's Note: This corrects a previous caption.

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