“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” You probably found yourself humming along to those familiar lyrics as you read them. The “12 Days of Christmas” carol is a holiday staple, one that many know but few understand.
Why would your true love give you a partridge in a pear tree, or 10 lords-a-leaping? One popular Internet myth link the lyrics to different doctrines and symbols of Christianity, but Snopes debunked the idea that “four calling birds” mean the four gospels.
Amid all the confusion, though, there is a deep Christian tradition behind the 12 days of Christmas.
These days, we start gearing up for Christmas as soon as Thanksgiving ends. Christmas decorations, music, shopping, and treats all build to a climax on Christmas day, and then trickle off as we turn our focus toward the new year. Traditionally, though, Christmas Day was the start, rather than the end, of the celebration.
Christmas Day marks the first of the 12 Days of Christmas, and they continue through January 6th, the feast of Epiphany. Christianity Today writer Jennifer Woodruff Tait explains the significance of this traditional celebration:
The "real" 12 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.
Traditional Feasts of Christmas
There are three feasts that followed Christmas, dating back to the 5th century. The first takes place December 26th, the Feast of Saint Stephen. This is the traditional day of giving leftovers to the poor to remember Stephen as an original deacon and the first martyr.
Saint John the Evangelist was celebrated on December 27th, recognizing, “John witnessed to the Incarnation through his words, turning Greek philosophy on its head with his affirmation, ‘The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14, KJV).”
December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by King Herod, because, as Tait explains, “They died unjustly before they had a chance to know or to will—but they died for Christ nonetheless.”
Merry Mischief Making
Not all of the Middle Ages Christmas celebrations were holy, though. Fans of Shakespeare know that “Twelfth Night” is a story of the mischief that occurred during the 12 days of Christmas. Each year, a “Lord of Misrule” was elected to rule over the festivities, and sometimes the Feast of the Ass would jokingly commemorate the donkey present in the manger scene. During this festival, people would irreverently bray like a donkey instead of saying “Amen” during mass.
These traditions were certainly frowned upon by clergy at the time, and have not survived until now. But Tait suggests that even these mischievous traditions can teach a valuable truth. She says, “the message of Christ turns the whole world upside down. In the birth of Jesus, God has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted the lowly.”
The traditional Christmas season ended January 6th, with the Festival of Epiphany.
“Epiphany commemorates the beginning of the proclamation of the gospel,” explains Tait. “Christ's manifestation to the nations, as shown in three different events: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the turning of water into wine. In the Western tradition, the Magi predominate.”
Although Christmas traditions have evolved over the centuries, the reason we celebrate has not. Jesus Christ was incarnated as a baby boy, launching God’s plan of salvation for all mankind. Traditions, merry-making, and holidays are all a part of remembering and celebrating this miracle. No matter how you’re celebrating this year, we hope your Christmas is full of joy.
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