Why There Are 12 Days of Christmas
The celebration of Jesus’ nativity just ended, and here we find ourselves smack in the middle of the 12 days of Christmas. Or are those 12 days passed already? Aren’t they December 13th-25th?
Some time back I was standing in the elevator at the hospital, reading a poster on the wall: “Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas with great deals!” There were savings promised at the gift shop each of the first dozen days of December. According to the poster, December 1st-12th were the supposed 12 Days. Are they?
In fact, both of these interpretations of the 12 Days of Christmas miss the mark. The truth underscores the deep delight of this holiday.
The ghost of Christmas passed
The “12 Days of Christmas” refer to the 12 days from December 25th through January 6th. Christmas Day is the beginning of a festival that carries on for nearly two weeks, up until the feast of Epiphany. “Christmas” isn’t just a day, in other words; it’s a season.
Now, few in our society would dispute that there is such a thing as the “Christmas season,” but they might define it quite differently. This season would extend from, say, Thanksgiving until perhaps December 26th, when the radio stations drop their Christmas tunes like a hot coal in the stocking and go back to their regularly scheduled programming.
But as the world gives up the ghost of Christmas passed, the Church is just getting started with her yuletide celebrations. She has waited and watched throughout Advent—which tends to just be lumped in with what author Gregory Jones calls “HalloThanksMas.” She has refrained from singing her Gloria in Excelsis (“Glory to God in the highest!”) until she can sing it with the angels on Christmas Eve. Now, she’s ready to party.
Which gets at the deeper reason why there are 12 Days of Christmas. It’s a fact of the calendar, yes, but it’s more than that.
Too much for one day
The real reason that Christmas is 12 days is that the feast is too glorious for just one day. As Elsa Chaney writes in her book, the suitably titled Twelve Days of Christmas, “So bright is the radiance of the Light which has come at Christmas, so awesome is the mystery we celebrate, that a single day’s observance barely initiates us into the meaning of the feast.”
There’s a lot of joy to pack into this stocking.
And so I think it is high time that Christians reclaim the 12 Days. Too long have we allowed our celebrations to be co-opted by the culture’s “Christmas season.” Keeping the 12 Days is a path toward greater joy, greater festivity and, perhaps, even greater sanity.
In one of my very first newsletters last year I suggested 10 ways to celebrate the 12 days. But those are just the tip of the iceberg—or the top of the tree, you might say. So how else can we keep this 12-day feast?