I was having a conversation with a young(ish) pastor about a book the other day, and he mentioned that he and his family were “wrapping up the twelve days of Christmas.” I just looked at him. “Um… how can you be wrapping up the twelve days of Christmas, when they haven’t started yet?” He told me he thought it started on December 13, and wrapped up on the 25th, and didn’t really believe me when I told him the season starts on Christmas morning, and ends on Twelfthnight (January 6). It’s what is called “Christmastide,” and is a celebration that begins with the birth of Jesus and end on Epiphany, the day we celebrate the three kings arriving to meet the baby Jesus. My background is in medieval church history, and I think there are rich Christian traditions surrounding the holiday season that are often overlooked or forgotten. So, just in case you weren’t clear on your church history, I thought it would be good to talk about Christmastide.
The First Day of Christmas is obviously December 25. It’s the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. My guess is everyone reading this is clear on that point.
The Second Day of Christmas is also called Boxing Day, and it has a great history. That’s the day an employer would give each employee a “Christmas Box” full of food and goodies. It is also the Feast of Saint Stephen, celebrated as the first martyr for the faith. You’ll remember that “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,” then the lyrics of that hymn tells us he went to deliver food and firewood to a poor family. That’s the lesson of Boxing Day — a day for sharing things with others.
The Third Day of Christmas, also called St John’s Day, is a day to celebrate God coming down to visit us. Historically there was a family meal on this day, featuring mulled wine and toasts as people in the family wished each other well.
The Fourth Day of Christmas, December 28, is Holy Innocents Day, commemorating the day King Herod the Great had baby boys slaughtered in his attempt to kill the Son of God. This day reminds us that there is both joy and sorrow in the world, and in the story of God visiting us. But to add some fun to this day, in medieval times the boys who helped serve in church were made “Bishops” for the day, and were put in charge, while the priests and bishops became the servers.
The Fifth Day of Christmas, historically referred to as the Feast of Saint Thomas Becket, was a day to gather with friends & family, eat together, sing carols, and talk. (I’m an Anglican, and yes, it’s funny that Anglicans would revere Becket, since it was an English king who had him killed for defending the church & the pope.) Today this is commonly viewed as a day for all Christians to take a stand against tyranny, and to show their support for human rights. There are often marches and public speeches made on the Fifth Day in support of those causes. This is the perfect day to make a donation to a cause you embrace.
The Sixth Day of Christmas has no feast or saint or great history tied to it. Instead, the day is usually for remembering the Holy Family (Mary & Joseph), and their flight to avoid King Herod’s slaughter. Traditionally, families got together and gave each other small gifts on this day, to celebrate our own families. So this would be a great day to post a picture of your family on social media and be reminded of how much we appreciate families.
The Seventh Day of Christmas is December 31, the end of the calendar year and a huge celebration in many cultures. It’s the day Christians celebrate the baby Jesus being presented at the Temple, and being honored by Simeon and Anna. In Scotland, where my family is from, we call it “Hogmanay” (a Scots Gaelic term for “yuletide”), and in many European countries it is called The Feast of Silvester. The idea is the same everywhere — we celebrate by looking back at the past year, noting the big events, then looking forward to the new year, and our hopes for what will happen.
Happy New Year! The eighth day of Christmas is called “the Octave Day,” and there has been a split in the church over the focus. Catholics use January 1 to celebrate Mary, the mother of Jesus. Anglicans & Lutherans & Jewish Christians use it to celebrate the day Christ was taken to the temple to be dedicated — that is, He was officially named and circumcised, representing both the humanity and obedience of Jesus. For the past 100 years or so, the focus of this day has been gathering people to pray for peace in the world.
The ninth day of Christmas, January 2, has a bunch of traditions tied to it. Some celebrate the Feast of Saint Basil, others the Celebration of Gregory of Nazianzus (the guy who championed the trinity), while others go a completely opposite route and use this day for fasting after the New Year’s celebration.
The tenth day of Christmas is the Celebration of Lights, remembering in the midst of a dark winter that light has come into the world. So, even though you might be sick and tired of Christmas lights and decorations (it seems like Target starts putting up their Christmas decorations right after Halloween), Christians traditionally leave up their lights throughout the season as a way of celebrating the true light of God.
The eleventh day of Christmas, January 4, is a day for us to remind each other of the stories of the saints. Who have been the influential people in your spiritual life? Who shaped and influenced your life? Those are the stories to be told this day. (Note: Some in the US now use this day for honoring Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint.)
And the last day of Christmastide, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, was sometimes referred to as Epiphany Eve, but is nearly always called by its party name: Twelfthnight! Made famous for all time by William Shakespeare, it’s a day that features a party atmosphere, wassail, panettone cake, games, singing, and Misrule, where servants pretended to be Lords, and Lords were the servants. There were always a lot of costume parties on Twelfthnight, and it sometimes featured fruitcake with a stone or coin hidden inside — whoever was served the slice with the coin became the “host” for the festivities.
One last thing to note: While the rest of January is still Christmastide, Epiphany season begins the next day. There may be a last feast to say goodbye to the Christmas season, and lamb and “Epiphany Tart” will be served. This day traditionally celebrates the visit of the Magi to see Mary and the baby Jesus, so some people refer to it as “Three Kings Day,” and it is often a day to have your home prayed over and blessed. In many cultures this was the day you took down your Christmas decorations… but there are still some that insist the lights and baubles are to be left up until February 2, called Candlemas — the last day of Epiphany season, when the world can be reminded that winter will be fading, the days are getting longer, and the freshness of spring will soon be upon us.
My prayer is that you will celebrate all of the Christmas season. Our rejoicing doesn’t end with Christmas Day — in fact, it’s just the beginning.