The Twelve Days Begin, Not End, with Christmas

By Mark Gunderman, Sterling Park

The church year begins with the Advent of Our Lord, the four weeks before Christmas of getting ready for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem on Christmas Day. Advent is a time of joyful preparation for the wonderful time when the Son of God came to earth to live as a person among the people. Christians await the coming of Christ in a spirit of expectation.

The actual twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day, December 25, and continue through January 5, celebrating the Name of Jesus which is the eve of Epiphany. Christmas is a season of thankfulness for the goodness of God. The purpose of Jesus Christs’ birth was to save us from our sins, to reveal the Father to us and lead us to Him and to reveal the Kingdom of God so that we can live according to God’s Way. Jesus came to reconcile us to God so that we can have eternal life.

Day 2 (26th December): St Stephen’s Day. He was the first Christian martyr.

Day 3 (27th December): St John the Apostle.

Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents – people remember the baby boys which King Herod had killed.

Day 5 (29th December): St Thomas Becket. He was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century and was murdered on 29th December 1170 for challenging the King’s authority over Church.

Day 6 (30th December): St Egwin of Worcester. As a bishop he was known as a protector of orphans and the widowed and a fair judge.

Day 7 (31st December): New Year’s Eve. Pope Sylvester I is traditionally celebrated on this day. He was one of the earliest popes (in the 4th Century).

Day 8 (1st January): 1st January – Mary, the Mother of Jesus is celebrated.

Day 9 (2nd January): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, two important 4th century Christians.

Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This remembers when Jesus was officially ‘named’ in the Jewish Temple. It’s celebrated by different churches on a various dates.

Day 11 (4th January): St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Day 12 (5th January also known as Epiphany Eve): St. John Neumann who was the first Bishop in America. He lived in the 19th century.

Epiphany is the conclusion of the Advent and Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas. Epiphany begins on January 6. The term epiphany means to reveal. In Western churches, it remembers the coming of the wise men bringing gifts to visit the Christ child, who by so doing “reveal” Jesus to the world as Lord and King.

The Twelve Days of Christmas carol is what many people believe to be a secular song with French origins that celebrates the Christmas season with imagery of gifts and dancing and music. It possibly began as a Twelfth Night “memory-and-forfeits” game in which the leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake.

Other folks say the carol is found in references to French songs used by the English Roman Catholics to help them keep their faith.

Still others say it is an English Christmas carol. From 1558 (after King Henry VIII established the Church of England in 1536) until 1829 (when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England), Roman Catholics were not permitted to practice their faith openly. The 12 days carol was most likely an underground teaching aid for different aspects of the catechism, designed to facilitate learning of important Catholic doctrine without fear of recrimination.

The “true love” of the song is understood to be God, giving various gifts to humankind. For example, the partridge in a pear tree is said to represent Jesus Christ, the Son of God, sent to atone for the sins of humankind by dying.

The partridge in a pear tree represents Christ because that bird is willing to sacrifice its life if necessary to protect its young by feigning injury to draw away predators. In ancient times a partridge was often used as symbol of a divine and sacred king.

The two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments. The doves symbolize peace.

The three French hens stood for faith, hope, and love. These are the three gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The four calling (originally colly birds, a common blackbird) birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The five golden rings represented the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: 1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, 4) Numbers, and 5) Deuteronomy; which gives the history of humanity’s sinful failure and God’s response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.

The six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1).

Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit being Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.

The eight maids a-milking reflect the eight beatitudes. These are Jesus’ teachings of happiness.

Nine ladies dancing represent nine fruits of the Holy Spirit being Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Goodness, Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty and Chastity.

The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.

The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful Apostles.

The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed: 1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 2) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. 4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy Catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting.

The early North American colonists brought their version of the Twelve Days over from England and adapted them to their new country, adding variations over the years. The modern-day Christmas wreath may have originated with these colonials. A homemade wreath would be fashioned from local greenery and fruits. Wreaths would remain hung on each home’s front door beginning on Christmas Night (1st night of Christmas) through Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning. As was already the tradition in their native England, all decorations would be taken down by Epiphany morning and the remainder of the edibles would be consumed. A special cake, the king cake, was also baked then for Epiphany.

The historic traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas have been largely forgotten in the United States. Contributing factors include the popularity of generous gift-giving focused stories by Charles Dickens in nineteenth-century America and the introduction of more secular traditions over the past two centuries (i.e. American Santa Claus) and the rise in popularity of New Year’s Eve parties.

These days, Christmas actually terminates the Christmas marketing season for merchants. The commercial calendar has encouraged an incorrect assumption that the Twelve Days period end on Christmas Day and must therefore begin in mid-December or even more recently the day after Thanksgiving. Most people are simply too tired after Christmas Day to do much celebrating.

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