To talk about celebrating the full 12 days of Christmas, one must first talk about celebrating Advent. To do otherwise would be like talking about childbirth without talking about pregnancy. How each of these goes depends on what came before.
It is difficult to gin up another two weeks of festivity if you’ve already spent four weeks eating cookies. If you want to really celebrate 12 days of Christmas, prepare by abstaining as practicable during Advent.
Preparing to celebrate
This isn’t to spiritually burden people. We live in a world that schedules Christmas concerts and festivals immediately after Thanksgiving, so if we’re to go to such things or our children are performing in them, it must be when they’re available. Some have extended family who want to celebrate the entire month of December, and we love them too.
So I suggest simply deferring as much feast-like behavior as possible, for the sake of enjoying the feasting to its fullest in its time. Consider deferring as much gratification as possible to the 12 days. If you can go to your local performance of “The Nutcracker” after Christmas, pick those tickets. If you are part of a church that likes to carol, get involved and suggest the caroling happens during the 12 days, or do a second run of caroling then.
I have found this simple choice to live liturgically during Advent to be a wonderful stress reliever as well as a major assist in helping me focus on reflection and preparation during December.
Celebrating for 12 full days
Once Christmas has arrived, how best to celebrate uproariously for a whole 12 days? Spread out the enjoyment instead of packing it all into one day. Plotting out the 12 days of Christmas in advance, as the Catholic writer Leila Lawler notes in her wonderful new book, Summa Domestica, “builds anticipation and keeps you on track.”
Deferring things to the actual Christmas season helps populate it with festivities. As a mom of six young children, I find that one festive activity planned per day is a great balance for us of fun with rest. So after I pencil in any scheduled activities that other people control, then I schedule my own activities for the other days. Most of these are simple but special activities at home.
First, I anchor our Christmas celebration plans around our church’s services. Hopefully your church has a beautiful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day service, like ours does. Our church also offers daily services with Christ’s body and blood during the 12 days of Christmas.
Since Christmas is a high festival, there is no better way to celebrate it than partaking in Christ’s glorious gifts of Word and Sacrament. Since we Lutherans confess that hearing the Word and receiving Christ’s body and blood is our highest good (LSB 618, 619), confessing that with our words and deeds in attending sacramental church services is a deep and beautiful expression of our faith, tradition and identity.
If your church does not offer these traditional Christmas services, consider gathering a few families who would commit to showing up and together ask your pastor if you all could celebrate the 12 days or a few selected saints’ or other Christmas festival days with more Divine Services. Asking for more spiritual instruction and nourishment from Christ’s own precious body and blood would be the best Christmas present ever for a faithful pastor from his congregation.
If this is not an option for you, I recommend daily family worship during the 12 days of Christmas using the Treasury of Daily Prayer from Concordia Publishing House. We find that good times for us to do family Bible and catechism readings are right after breakfast or dinner.
Now for ideas for festive activities besides worship. We mostly plan simple activities that differ from our everyday routines, such as making gingerbread houses or some other Christmas craft, ice skating, sledding or going on nature walks to our favorite nearby nature areas. We might have a train set or Lego building competition, poetry readings in front of our gas fireplace or sit down to a long and complicated (or short and exciting) board or card game.
We spread out the opening of gifts over the 12 days. This prevents the overwhelming “present avalanche” of opening them all on Christmas Day, and helps the recipients (especially children) feel and express gratitude by spending one day to enjoy and absorb each present.
In some years, depending on how little the babies are and how practical this is for our budget, I also plan mini trips that are hard to fit into our weekly rhythm otherwise. These would include a day or overnight trip to a nearby city to visit a zoo, public gardens, museums, outdoor markets and independent bookstores.
Often these mini trips will include visits to family, or from family, or to friends we don’t get enough time with otherwise. One idea I’m saving for when my kids are a bit older is reserving a room at a hotel with a pool and spending the whole day swimming.
We also host simple parties during the 12 days of Christmas. The time between Christmas and the New Year is often very quiet, with work slowing and school often on break, so a simple party is just the thing.
I make hosting low-key by making large crockpot recipes or easy, simmer-all-day soups with crackers or rolls if I’m offering a meal, or pulling out all the special treats I’ve squirreled away during grocery shopping in Advent to deck out a hot chocolate, gingerbread men, nachos or Rice Krispies bar. Or make it a potluck and those with loads of Christmas food to clear out will thank you even more.
All of these sorts of activities have such a luxury feeling about them during the 12 days of Christmas. Our family does such things in our everyday life, but with the crunch between work and school and other obligations, the extra margins of time during Christmastide makes them extra peaceful and joyful. For me it’s exactly what brings up the magical feeling of Christmas — and it perfectly matches this season’s remembrance of the Holy Family created by the incarnation of Christ.
Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford