What are the Twelve Days of Christmas?
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“On the Twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” Wait, there are TWELVE Days? I though Christmas ended at 9am on the 25th of December?
Christmas is actually a season that lasts until the Epiphany, January 6th. On Christmas morning, the party has just gotten started! But many people wonder what happens on the rest of the 12 days? Well, not every day of the 12 has a major feast associated with it. But we will cover the ones that do below (and provide a link to this year’s 12 Days guide to prayer here and below). Note that in some years some feasts are “transferred.” This means that if they fall on a Sunday, they are moved to a Monday.
The liturgical day actually starts at sundown the night before a feast or fast. The Christmas Eve eucharist is actually the first worship service of Christmas. The emphasis is usually on the story of the birth of Christ. The church is greened (and redded) in preparation. Because we don’t sing carols during Advent, we sing and sing on Christmas Eve. Some churches have candlelight services, although this is properly reserved for The Epiphany if possible.
The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day
Christmas Day is the day of the “Christ Mass.” It is a festival day, a day of rejoicing that God has been made man in the person of a tiny baby, born of the virgin Mary. Gift giving on Christmas day is a tradition that can remind us, and help us to put into action, the great gift that God gave the world that day in Bethlehem.
December 26th: The Feast of St. Stephen
You can read about St. Stephen in Acts, chapters 6 and 7. He is considered to be a proto-deacon of the church, with others, because he was set apart to minister to the needs of the widows on behalf of the apostles. He was martyred by stoning, and Saul (later Paul) stood by and held his murderer’s cloaks. Stephen preached the Gospel as he was being stoned, and saw a vision of Jesus standing at God’s right hand.
December 27th: The Feast of St. John
St. John was the “beloved disciple.” He was basically Jesus’ best friend. He wrote the Gospel of John, which focused on the theology of the incarnation and the person of Jesus Christ. John focused on the light of Christ coming into a dark world. This focus is appropriate during the Christmas season, as a reminder that God is light, and that in Jesus we see the world as it is, and also catch a glimpse of how he is redeeming it.
The First Sunday After Christmas
The first Sunday after Christmas is focused more on the theology of the Incarnation and the dual nature of Christ. John 1 is read. This reading helps us to see that the Incarnation and dual natures of Christ are not dry theology. They are the very light of God poured into our lives. The Word was made flesh and it changed the world. There is no other God like our God, who came to live among us. There is no other story like this Story, and it has radically transformed our world.
December 28th: The Holy Innocents
This is a more reflective, somber day. This day commemorates the innocent children who were killed by Herod in Bethlehem, when he was trying to eliminate the baby that was said to be the Messiah (Matthew 2). Along with these innocent babies, we remember all innocent people who have been subject to violence or even death. We pray that God will frustrate the designs of tyrants, and give us grace to bring healing to a world marked by suffering.
January 1: The Holy Name (New Year’s Day)
This might rock your world a bit. January 1st is actually not the first day of the Church Year. In our calendar, this is the day that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day according to the custom of the Jews (Luke 2). This is when the child was given a name. The name “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua” which means “the Lord will save.” The angel that appeared to both Mary and Joseph told them to “call his name Jesus” for he will “save his people from their sins.” The name of God is an important and holy aspect of the Hebrew faith. God’s name was revealed to Moses as the “I AM” and “Yahweh”. To this day, Jews do not pronounce or write the name of God, to set it apart. Because of the power of God to save in Jesus Christ, we celebrate his name on this day. Meanwhile, we are enjoying the public holiday of New Year’s Day as well.
The Second Sunday after Christmas
When there is a Second Sunday after Christmas (which is almost always), we focus on the humanity of Christ. He came into this world and walked in our shoes. He experienced life just as we do, but without sin. He was poor, and lowly, and he came to serve. He loved us, even to death. Our God became one of us.
January 6th: The Epiphany
The Epiphany follows the Twelve Days. It is the feast that commemorates the coming of the Wise Men to Jesus, following the star. These magi were gentiles, non-Jews. No one knows for sure why they were looking for a Jewish Messiah. But they were guided to him by the light of a star. The Epiphany completes the cycle of Christ’s birth story, but it also points us out from that moment to the world. Just as the Magi, gentiles, came to see Jesus and followed his light, so all people can be drawn to him. The light of Christ still shines today through us. We are not called to put it under a basket and hide it, or try to keep it for ourselves. We are called to shine his light to all the world.
The Feast of the Epiphany both closes the Christmas season and opens the Season after the Epiphany. This is called “ordinary” time. Its not “ordinary” in the sense of “unimportant.” Instead, it shows us that our ordinary lives are indeed filled with the light and love of God, and are the place where he works.
Thanks for joining me on this journey. May the peace of the Christ Child be yours this Christmas season, and forever.
To see this year’s calendar for the Twelve Days, click the link below.
Greg Goebel is the founder and editor of AnglicanPastor and Canon to the Ordinary of Anglican Diocese of the South.
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