For most people Christmas tends to be one day, marked by gift giving and a festive dinner and then it is over, followed perhaps by Boxing Day sales. But in the church year the Christmas season is actually twelve days, as marked by the popular song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which actually was a coded catechism for young Catholics who could not practise their faith in England prior to 1829. These twelve days do not lead up to Christmas but fall between Christmas day and Epiphany on January 6th – so December 25th to January 5th, known as Twelfth Night.
As the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ suggests, one might give gifts on each of the twelve days – although some do not give gifts until the twelfth day. In that song, the gifts multiply out of control. Twelve partridges in a pear tree, and not just one, are given because one is given on each of the twelve days and so on and so forth with the rest of the gifts. One might wonder why shops do not harp on this and increase their sales during this season by encouraging consumerism in a consumerist society. Perhaps, they are all sold out after Christmas and are simply anticipating the sales.
But for the church the twelve days are significant ones, marked by important religious events and happenings especially in the Orthodox church. The first day of Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ, the adoration of the shepherds and the arrival of the Magi, even though they probably arrived a year or two after the birth. The second day, known as the Syntaxis of the Theotokos or the ‘Coming Together of the God-bearer’, in the Orthodox church, commemorates the role of Mary in the birth, while the third day is dedicated to St. Stephen, who was a deacon and the first martyr of the church. December 29th marks the feast of the Holy Innocents. The circumcision of the Lord is marked on January 1st, while January 5th is day of fasting for the eastern church as it commemorates the baptism of Jesus and marks the first steps to his crucifixion.
There are traces of the Twelve Days in our society. Boxing Day is a holiday in commonwealth countries while Christmas decorations are generally to be taken down by January 5th lest bad luck befall the household.
Christmas is a season not just a day.