Christianity Today: The Real Twelve Days of Christmas

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Sometime in November, as things now stand, the "Christmas season" begins. The streets are hung with lights, the stores are decorated with red and green, and you can't turn on the radio without hearing songs about the spirit of the season and the glories of Santa Claus. The excitement builds to a climax on the morning of December 25, and then it stops, abruptly. Christmas is over, the New Year begins, and people go back to their normal lives.

The traditional Christian celebration of Christmas is exactly the opposite. The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and for nearly a month Christians await the coming of Christ in a spirit of expectation, singing hymns of longing. Then, on December 25, Christmas Day itself ushers in twelve days of celebration, ending only on January 6 with the feast of the Epiphany. Exhortations to follow this calendar rather than the secular one have become routine at this time of year. But often the focus falls on giving Advent its due, with the Twelve Days of Christmas relegated to the words of a cryptic traditional carol. Most people are simply too tired after Christmas Day to do much celebrating.

The "real" twelve days of Christmas are important not just as a way of thumbing our noses at secular ideas of the "Christmas season." They are important because they give us a way of reflecting on what the Incarnation means in our lives. Christmas commemorates the most momentous event in human history—the entry of God into the world He made, in the form of a baby. The Logos through whom the worlds were made took up His dwelling among us in a tabernacle of flesh. One of the prayers for Christmas Day in the Catholic liturgy encapsulates what Christmas means for all believers: "O God, who marvelously created and yet more marvelously restored the dignity of human nature, grant that we may share the divinity of Him who humbled himself to share our humanity." In Christ, our human nature was united to God, and when Christ enters our hearts, he brings us into that union.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeChurch Year / Liturgical SeasonsChristmas

Posted December 30, 2008 at 10:05 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Chris wrote:

I made a point of wearing “Christmasy” colors to a party last night and will continue to do so through the weekend.  One tradition we try to maintain as well is the opening of presents throughout the 12 days instead of all on the 25th.  It’s highly recommended for instilling the value of delayed gratification in addition to a greater understanding of what His birth means to us.

December 30, 11:50 am | [comment link]
2. stjohnsrector wrote:

I hAve been harping on this all my ordained life. But we fight against
A local radio station that starts playing Christmas music the first week of November. And most protestant churches join right in. The nearby Ms Lutheran church has Christmas trees, creches (a collection of everal dozen) and carols by THanksgiving.  When you mention advent to any of the Protestant churches they give you a blank stare.

December 30, 12:39 pm | [comment link]
3. libraryjim wrote:

Agree with both of the above comments. 

For a time I would write letters to local Christian radio stations complaining that they stop playing Christmas music just as Christmas season gets underway.  Christmas Eve is not the END of Christmas, but the beginning. 

I’d never get any replies, and they never changed their policy. So I stopped.

Merry Christmas-tide
Jim Elliott <><

December 30, 1:21 pm | [comment link]
4. wrote:

For the past couple years our family has been slowly “de-Christmasing” Advent and shifting toward the 12 days.  I’d say we’re about half-way there.  It’s been a rewarding exercise.

One counter-cultural thing we did this year was celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas on the day (6 Dec) with modest gifts in stockings.  This might seem like a step backwards, but it served to de-emphasize Santa Claus later on the 25th when the Christ child is the focus.

December 30, 3:09 pm | [comment link]
5. drjoan wrote:

When I was working I started sending my Christmas cards out AFTER Christmas, explaining that as an Episcopal Christian I celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas—my small attempt to change some local culture.  It has worked: folks do not expect our house to be all lit up until the last week in Advent and then they anticipate that we keep the lights up until well past New Year’s Day.
Our children have kept the tradition.  Now that I am a MS Lutheran, my husband and I are working on them!

December 30, 3:17 pm | [comment link]
6. libraryjim wrote:

And you have the extra-added benefit of getting the cards at 1/2 price!

December 30, 3:33 pm | [comment link]
7. Bishop Daniel Martins wrote:

RE #6: To say nothing of getting great deals on Christmas trees just before their retail shelf life expires.

December 30, 4:15 pm | [comment link]
8. Larry Morse wrote:

I keep my Christmas tree up until Epiphany, and I increasingly find that I enjoy its company, just the tree and me. It is a rich companionship because one looks at it - the sweetness of the balsam is the air - and thinks and thinks and remembers all the other trees in all the other places. Love companions memory. And memory sings the longest of the songs, a new stanza for every year. Advent I now treat as a puritan season, an extended Yom Kippur, whose end is not punishment but reward.
  As to the stores and the organized corporate greed: I remember Marley explaining to Scrooge the reason for his chains: “I wear the chains I forged in life. I made it link by in and yard by yard…” And I let the jingling of the cash register remind me of the clashing of chains. They shall be Marleyed, yes they will, and in the fullness of time, they shall know it. And during advent, I pray that Scrooge’s epiphany shall be mine too, year after year. Larry

December 30, 6:17 pm | [comment link]
9. Ad Orientem wrote:

In the Orthodox Church we fast during what western Christians typically call Advent.  The eight days that follow the Feast of the nativity are exempt from all fasting including the usual Friday and Wednesday fasts.  And the celebration continues even after until the eve of Theophany which is a strict fast.

Under the mercy,

An Orthodox Christian

December 30, 6:27 pm | [comment link]
10. recchip wrote:

Larry’s comment causes made me think.  Here is a quick survey:

How long do you leave your Christmas Tree up?  New Years, Epiphany, Candlemas, Valentines Day, Easter? (I have known people who would answer each of the above-not the same people, but 5 different families.)

I’ll start.  We usually take it down at Epiphany (it gets too dry).


December 30, 6:44 pm | [comment link]
11. physician without health wrote:

The LCMS church I am at does hang the greens early in Advent, and does have some Christmas Carols during Advent, but still there is a separation of Advent from Christmas to a greater degree than in many other Protestant churches.

December 31, 2:20 am | [comment link]
12. Hursley wrote:

Our parish keeps a rich Advent observance, with the 2nd Sunday having a St. Nicholas element to it. Our Advent Lessons & Carols service also keeps a strong focus on Advent preparation, with only a “hint” of Christmas most years. Quiet Days and an Advent Confession is part of our parish’s tradition, as well. It is also a key part of our preparations to participate in various mission and outreach efforts during Advent.

In our home, we begin putting up some Christmas lights (exterior) on Gaudete Sunday. Until then, it is just blue lights (for Advent). Our custom is to put the tree up on or after the 4th Sunday of Advent (we used to put it up on Christmas Eve, but having children and being involved in a number of parish activities on the day before Christmas has made that very difficult now). The parish is “greened” and decorated after the 4th Sunday service.

On Christmas eve we have a simple meal of soup, and bread, and then attend Midnight Mass. Final decorations are then put out. I remember one Bishop of my acquaintance years ago who used to have friends back to his home after Midnight Mass for champagne and fried egg sandwiches!

We then keep the 12 Days with gusto, observing the various feast both liturgically and in our family customs with special foods and activities. I have arranged the music for the season so that we begin in Advent with a lot of classic Anglican Advent pieces and move through Christmastide through Epiphany with music from throughout the European/American tradition. We have generally put out our Christmas cards during the 12 days, which is a really enjoyable custom as we get to respond to other people’s cards and newsletters.

The parish has an Epiphany service with pageant and other events following, which concludes the Feast. We also put a focus on Candlemas (with a blessing of candles and procession – sometimes with a party, too!), which really brings to an end the Incarnation Cycle in the Calendar. There is something quite powerful and touching about the themes on that Feast.

All-in-all, Christmas and Epiphany is for us a very rich and enjoyable time; we use those parts of the secular celebration that make for fun and jollity, but really try to live it out in a way that reflects the Gospel, the Calendar, and the power of God to love and redeem us.

December 31, 2:33 pm | [comment link]
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