on the first day of Christmas

That would be today.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is probably the most misunderstood part of the church year among Christians who are not familiar with liturgical church traditions. Contrary to much popular belief, these are not the 12 days before Christmas, but (in most of the Western liturgy) are the 12 days from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany (January 6th; the 12 days count from December 25th until January 5th). In some traditions, the first day of Christmas begins on the evening of December 25th - with the 12 days beginning December 26th - and includes Epiphany on January 6th.

(Note to reader: If you've had enough already with the pseudodidactic text, scroll down to post's end.)

And then we have Russian and other Eastern Orthodox religions which celebrate Christmas 13 days after western Christmas, on January 7th, in accordance with the old Julian calendar. (We'll get to that another time. Probably right around January 7th, in all likelihood.) The rest of the calendar is pushed back as well, setting the observation of Epiphany or Theophany on January 19th.

The origin and counting of the Twelve Days is complicated, and is related to differences in calendars, church traditions and ways to observe this holy day in various cultures. In the Western tradition, Epiphany is usually celebrated as the time the wise men - or Magi - arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12). Traditionally there were three Magi, probably determined by the three gifts, even though the biblical narrative never says how many Magi came.

By the 16th century, some European and Scandinavian cultures had combined the Twelve Days of Christmas with festivals celebrating the changing of the year. These were usually associated with driving away evil spirits for the start of the new year.

The Twelfth Night is January 5th, the last day of the Christmas season before Epiphany. In some church traditions, January 5th is considered the eleventh day of Christmas, while the evening of January 5th is still counted as the Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night celebrations often include feasting along with the removal of Christmas decorations. French and English celebrations of Twelfth Night include a King's Cake and ale or wine - and remembering the visit of the Magi.

And then there's the song. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is seen by many as a delightful (or annoying - or both) bit of nonsensical holiday verse set to music. Perhaps that's the beginning and end of it. However, some have suggested that it's a song of Christian instruction dating to the 16th century religious wars in England, with hidden references to the basic teachings of the faith; they contend that it was a mnemonic device to teach the catechism to youngsters. The "true love" mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian tradition. Each of the "days" represents some aspect of the Christian faith that was important for children to learn. But many have questioned the historical accuracy of this origin of the song. There is little evidence available either way.

For our part, the Twelve Days (and then some) provide a great excuse to maintain decked halls well into the New Year. My family (of origin) has famously gathered 'round a decorated Christmas tree in...um...April. I've been informed that when/if we visit my parents in February or March 2008, we'll be dining in the company of nutcrackers and the Della Robbia wreath. My family (of now) not-so-famously keeps our baseline yule decor (large glass ornaments suspended from satin ribbon hung in a wide interior archway) on display year-round. I also play Christmas music in August. And May. And whenever I like, which is a lot of the time. (This disclosure is diagnostic, I admit; I prefer to label myself and my clan as eccentric(s). It's also my blog version of personal anecdote.) I think the whole (crazy, in our case) extension of the Season has all kinds of deep-seated motives; none of mine will be revealed or explored here (not to worry). For now, I'll borrow some familiar words that perfectly express the notion that what and where we have been carry us to where and who we are - and will be:

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons they teach.

:images metropolitan museum of art; dianamuse.


Luisa Perkins said...

I've been away for a week and return to be overwhelmed by fabulousness. Oh, the riches.

Jen said...

Oh, I love that Met creche! And that's a gorgeous picture of the tree at Lincoln Center. I get so homesick reading your blog. And lovely discussion on the 12 Days. I hope your celebration is going well!

blah said...

Oh diana - what a great post - great pics, informative, insightful and funny!! Well, I have a little secret - I have been carolling in July before (only once tho I might add!!!) So I can relate to the Christmas throughout the year thing!

Anonymous said...

Diana, this is such a beautiful and informative post. I always learn something from you. How interesting is the symbolism surrounding the Christmas story. I love the rich layering of the symbolic, the historic and the visual. Great Post!
I wish you and your family all the best in the new year.

katiedid said...

What a brilliant post. Thank you for having such a wonderful blog and I look forward to visiting often in 2008! I wish you the Happiest of New Years!