The 12 Days of Christmas

As a child, most of us would have celebrated the idea that Christmas was twelve days long, so long as that meant Santa came twelve days in a row!  We all know the popular song “The 12 Days of Christmas” but most of us do not appreciate the historical significance behind the song.  Perhaps some of us believe that the “12 Days of Christmas” begins on December 14 and runs through Christmas Day.  In an American culture where shopping, marketing, and a heightened emphasis on Christmas Day has come to dominate our collective minds, we know precious little about the reality of the 12 days of Christmas.

For both Eastern and Western Christianity, the twelve days of Christmas are feast days that begin on December 25th and run through January 5th, the eve of Epiphany (or Feast of Theophany).  Epiphany is also a feast day that commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river (and the beginning of his earthly ministry) or for some traditions, especially in the west, Epiphany is a day to recognize the revelation of Jesus to the Magi, thereby proclaiming salvation to the Gentiles.  So, Christmas time is the period linking the scene at the Nativity to the feast day of Epiphany on January 6th. 

Throughout church history, this period of 12 days has been celebrated in various ways and has come to mean various things.  But, for all who have celebrated the 12 days of Christmas, they have seen them as a time for celebration, feasting, and rejoicing.  It could be that the Christmas wreath itself was created to acknowledge the 12 days of Christmas, whereby fruit would be added to the wreath every day as it was available, and then it would be removed on January 5th and eaten. 

Over the last couple of centuries, America has gradually emphasized Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve as their “feast days” of choice.  That is certainly not a bad thing; Christmas Eve is one of the greatest days of the year for many reasons.  And yet I can’t help but wonder if our own wonder of the coming of Christ is muddled by the secularization of the holiday.  Now, every year you will see things like “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  I appreciate those sentiments and they are good words, but they have really become the cliched, Christian thing to say and most of us who say them turn off the light switch on Christmas on December 26th, not realizing just how powerful the influence of our own upbringing and culture really is.  I am not suggesting that we must never change or grow past our historical roots, and I frankly love the Christmas season that America celebrates, but celebrating Christmas is surely more than the recognition of a single day, even when that one day is truly something special.  My wife really hates the song “It’s Christmas Everyday” because in her simple argument – “it isn’t Christmas everyday.”  She is right.  But one simple way we might could allow our homes, our families, and our churches to welcome the coming of the Christ child is to celebrate Christmas throughout the rest of the week and to appreciate the intent of history’s emphasis on this special time of year.  Christmas isn’t over just yet.          

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3 Replies to “The 12 Days of Christmas”

  1. Very cool…. Had always wondered about those 12 days… Will definitely look into this more now… And, strangely enough, I agree with Andi on the song… Tho the point is valid.

  2. I second the Amen. Our culture has sort of taken Christmas over. According to western Christian tradition, the season of Advent goes up through Dec 24. Christmas itself would not be celebrated until Midnight, Dec 25, at the earliest. Hence, the late night Christmas Eve vigil. But our culture ignores Advent and celebrates Christmas all December long until the 25th. And then, just as Christmas is really just getting started, they end it.

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