The 12 Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts

by Terence Maher

If you, like good king Wenceslaus, looked out on the Feast of Stephen—that’s Dec. 26, for the record—you might think Christmas is over. On the Christmas Day evening news, local TV stations are already posting Christmas tree pick-up sites and times. Some trees hang around for a week to give a festive atmosphere to New Year’s Eve and Day, then come down. On Jan. 2, Valentine’s Day candy is in the stores.

That fits with the world’s Christmas season, but the Church has something a little different going on. December is largely taken up with Advent. The idea is preparation, but not in buying presents and food. It’s about a preparation of repentance for celebrating the coming of God in the flesh, Jesus, who will die to save us from our sins.
Christmas Isn’t Just One Day

The Church’s celebration of Christmas does not begin with December and end on Christmas, with New Year’s Day tacked on the end. In the Western Church, it begins on Christmas and continues until Epiphany. That day—Jan. 6—is when we celebrate the arrival of the Magi to worship Jesus. By tradition, these twelve days from Christmas through Epiphany comprise the Twelve Days of Christmas.

How did that happen? Nobody knows. Epiphany is a much older feast than Christmas, but it’s largely forgotten by most, lost in the shuffle by many, and celebrated by a few. Now how did that happen?

The Original Christmas

By the late fourth century, Epiphany was celebrated on Jan. 6. The earliest known reference dates from 361, and in those days the references indicate not just the appearance of the kings—epiphany is an English form of a Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation”—but also the appearance or manifestation, the epiphany, of God, including His birth.

It’s not that there wasn’t Christmas. This is Christmas as well as a celebration of all the other events in the life of the young Jesus up to and including His Baptism and first public miracle at the wedding in Cana. In short, it’s a big day.

Developments in the Western Church

In the Western Church, events began to spin off from Epiphany. By the sixth century, Dec. 25 had become the celebration of Christ’s birth. His Baptism was celebrated after Epiphany, so Epiphany itself focused on the arrival of the kings who, not being Jews, give it the significance of the appearance, or manifestation, of the Messiah to the Gentiles. Divisions cease. Jesus appeared not only as the Chosen One of Israel but the Lord of all nations.

Developments in the Eastern Church

The same doesn’t hold for the Eastern Church, where the day retained its original character. Many adopted Dec. 25 as the feast of Christ’s birth but kept the celebration of His Baptism on Epiphany. There’s the added complication that Jan. 6 in the older, Julian calendar (still used liturgically by the Eastern Church) is the equivalent of Jan. 19 in the Gregorian calendar used in the West. Confusing!

In the Eastern Church, the day is more commonly called the Theophany—the divine appearance or divine manifestation—and is considered the third most important feast in the church’s calendar (Easter is first and Pentecost second). So, while there aren’t Twelve Days of Christmas for our brethren in the Eastern Church, Theophany is more in line with the original intent of what we in the West call Epiphany.

And Then Came Vatican II

To complicate matters further, after a millennium and a half of usage, Rome decided at its last council, Vatican II in the early 1960s, to make Epiphany a movable feast. Now it’s no longer on Jan. 6 but on the Sunday after the first Saturday in January. So, if you were to listen to Rome, there aren’t Twelve Days of Christmas in the West now either!

But for us Lutherans—those who seek to hold to the catholic (not Catholic), evangelical faith—we can look to our latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, and find that Epiphany is still happily listed as Jan. 6.

What Is Feast of Stephen?

“Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” Now, if you think Epiphany got lost in the shuffle, what about this Feast of Stephen? It’s Dec. 26, the day after Christmas.

Stephen is the first recorded martyr for the Christian faith. It is the custom of the Church to commemorate someone not on the day of his earthly birth but the day of his birth to eternal life (his death). So it only makes sense that the first person to have been born to eternal life by martyrdom for his faith is celebrated right after the earthly birth of Him who came to make eternal life available to us.

Who Is This Wenceslaus?

Wenceslaus was a martyr for the Christian faith just like the first one, Stephen, on whose feast he looked out (according to his legend, at least). He served as the duke of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, in the early 900s. He’s called good because, despite his pagan mother, he kept the Christian faith of his grandmother, St. Ludmilla, who was herself converted by saints Cyril and Methodius, the “Apostles to the Slavs.” He was, according to tradition, a pious and prayerful Christian leader, killed at the hands of his pagan, power-hungry brother.

So what was Wenceslaus doing looking out on the Feast of Stephen? Tradition says that he spotted a man scrounging for food and asked his page where the man lived. In mercy, he then set out with his page to bring the man and his family aid. The page started faltering due to the cold and snow, but when he followed in Wenceslaus’s footsteps, he is said to have found the ground warm to his feet.

How to Celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas

You can still follow in the good king’s footsteps. John Mason Neale’s carol says, “Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

That means that from Christmas Day onward, all the fun and festivities are just beginning! You have twelve more days to celebrate, so leave those decorations up, right on up through Twelfth Night (Jan. 5–6). Also, check with your pastor. Many churches have a special service each day of the Twelve Days of Christmas to commemorate Christ’s Incarnation—His coming to earth in the flesh—for your salvation.

Simply put, the appearance or manifestation of God is just too big to contain in one day! That’s why the Church doesn’t. Instead, it extends the celebration of God’s coming among us to twelve days, starting at Christmas. Don’t let the world, the mall, or any calendar tell you any differently!

About the Author: Terence Maher is a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Omaha, Neb.

December 2010

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