Why there are 12 Days of Christmas

The elevator at Sacred Heart doesn’t usually disturb me. A recent trip did, however. It was the poster on its wall, which read, “Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas with great deals!”

The poster went on to promise incredible savings at the gift shop—each day from December 1st through December 12th, the supposed “12 Days of Christmas.”

“Christmas” isn’t just a day, in other words; it’s a season

As I write, it’s December 13th. Growing up, inasmuch as I thought about it at all, I assumed the “12 Days” must be the days from December 13th-25th.

It makes more sense that the 12 Days would culminate in Christmas itself, rather than just be left hanging in the middle of December like an icicle from a broken branch. Right?

In fact, both these hypotheses are wrong. The “12 Days of Christmas” refer to the 12 days between December 25th and January 6th. Christmas Day is the beginning of a festival that carries on for nearly two weeks, up until Epiphany.

“Christmas” isn’t just a day, in other words; it’s a season.

Now, few would dispute that there is such a thing as the “Christmas season,” but they would define it quite differently. This season would extend from, say, “Black Friday” (a high holy-day in our culture) until perhaps December 31st.

Truth to tell, though, most folks are so Christmased-out by the time the presents are unwrapped that they’d just as soon call it a season right then and there.

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 the culture just lumps in with its pseudo-Christmas season. 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.

Christmas 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.

Thus the traditional Christmas season extends from Christmas Eve until Epiphany—the 12 Days of Christmas.

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—yes—greater sanity.

In a pair of subsequent posts I will lay out the symbolism of the 12 Days, according to the famous carol, and then provide tips for how to keep the 12 Days in your home. In the meantime, let us stand together and say, “No partridges in pear trees ‘till December 25th!”

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