A Dozen Days of Christmas

Posted by Father Leo Perez, OMI of Team MISSIO on Dec 26, 2018 2:45:54 PM

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Is Christmas over on December 25?

What about that "12 days of Christmas" song?



Usually when you hear about “The 12 Days of Christmas” you think of the catchy Christmas carol which is a number building song about gifts that “my true love gave to me.” But is there any secret meaning behind the “11 pipers piping” and the “10 lords a leaping”? While there are a few contemporary theories about the carol being a catechism song which had hidden meaning during the Anglican persecution of Catholics in England, those theories don’t stand up well to historical scrutiny.  The 12 days of Christmas are part of an old Catholic culture which celebrated the dozen days of feasting and celebrating between Christmas Day and the Epiphany.  It’s a time to let our regular daily routine at the end of the year be influenced by the Christian narrative of Jesus’ birth. So don’t put your Christmas tree in the garbage on December 26 but rejoice and celebrate Christ’s birth throughout the entire liturgical season of Christmas.

During the era of the Middle Ages, fasting was demanded of Catholics on many days throughout the year.  But the Church also taught that fasting was not to characterize the days of celebrating Christ’s birth from the day after Christmas through the Epiphany, a period which lasted 12 days. Many different cultural traditions developed about giving little gifts and attending Church services during this season of joyfulness and good food.  So the Christmas carol about gifts on the 12 days of Christmas is about those ancient traditions of people giving each other little treats in remembrance of Christ’s birth.  

Our modern consumerist world seems to see Christmas as a business bonanza, the time for spending and buying. So the most wonderful time of the year has been expanded to start way before Advent even begins, when stores decorate for the holidays beginning even around the time of Halloween.  For Christians who have been observing the Season of Advent as a preparation for Christ’s birth, that day and the days that follow have a special meaning for our faith and our family gatherings.  What should we highlight during the 12 days starting on December 26?

We remember the day before it all begins, of course, Christmas Day itself, as the reason for the season. The Nativity of Christ the Lord is one of the most important Solemnities of the entire liturgical year. Known theologically as the feast of the Incarnation, this is the day when we remember the great mystery of how “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  The promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus’ birth.  The long awaited Messiah has come and God is born among us.  This is one of the foundations of our faith and a reason for doing good works in Christ’s name.

Within the 12 days we find on the Octave of Christmas (December 30) the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. On that Sunday we are reminded of the important place of domestic life in God’s plan of salvation. Rooted in the unconditional love of God (Col 3:12-17), we see the family as foundational for the spread of the Good News. The human family, or the first Church, is modeled on the love which existed in the home of Jesus Christ, a love in which we are all called to partake.

New Year’s Day is the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. It is a day of prayer for justice and peace in the world.  Pope Francis has asked us to build a world where the peace and justice of God will shine forth. This year of 2019 is also a year when the Pope will emphasize the importance of environmental justice during the Extraordinary Synod of the Amazon in October.

A special highlight during Christmas Time is the Epiphany of the Lord. This is the feast when we remember the three Kings who came to venerate the Lord Jesus and bring him gifts. In some countries it always falls on January 6, but in many countries, such as the United States, it is transferred to a Sunday. (For 2019, Sunday is January 6!) The Bible actually calls the royal visitors “Magi,” what we sometimes translate as wise men.  Many Catholic countries have wonderful traditions on this day where young children look forward to finding gifts left to them from the Kings. It’s also a great day to eat King’s cake in some parts of the world. In our own lives, it might be a good day to think about sending a gift to communities in greatest need around our world, as we end the 12 days of Christmas!

The Baptism of the Lord (in 2019, January 13) is the end of the Christmas liturgical season. It is a reminder that we have been baptized in Christ and are called to be missionaries. Because of Jesus' public ministry, which began after His Baptism, the Reign of God has been inaugurated and we have been saved. May the Time of Christmas so enrich our spiritual lives that we may go forth joyfully to spread the Gospel to the entire world.

MISSIO offers themed-quizzes in MissioBot to examine your religious knowledge - and this blog by Father Leo Perez, OMI to reflect on questions of mission and faith.   

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