The Real Twelve Days of Christmas
My first Christmas in America I found it odd to see Christmas decorations up in early November and promptly discarded by December 26th. However, as December 12th came round and people started counting down the "Twelve Days of Christmas" I found myself frustrated with the realization that a rich historic tradition had essentially become a commercial gimmick, totally separated from how it was and still is celebrated across Christendom.
In the most basic sense the real "Twelve Days of Christmas" truly begin on the 25th of December and comes to an end on the 5th of January. It is really this span which makes up the Christmas season, known theologically as ‘Christmastide’. This period following Christmas day was always a special time growing up in England in which many distinct traditions, gatherings and festivities were celebrated.
This designation of the Christmas season was decided upon in 567 AD at the Council of Tours which took place in central Francia, the result of which was the span being formally declared a sacred and festive season. Christmastide resides on the liturgical calendar as the middle of three distinct seasons of celebration: Advent (leading up to Christmas), Christmastide (the twelve days between December 25th and January 5th), and finally Epiphanytide.
The liturgical calendar of Orthodox Christianity exists to ensure the proper Church services, feast days and celebrations are followed which pertain to the birth of Christ. The days between Christmas and Epiphany are filled with many Christmas activities that vary amongst many European and South American countries.
Advent was set apart as a preparation for the upcoming holy season and not as a celebration of Christmas itself which it later became in more secular circles. This traditional advent involves many of the typical markings of the season which today are amalgamated into a more general understanding of Christmas including lighting advent candles on the four Sunday's leading up to Christmas as well as daily count down calendars. You can read more about Advent here.
Accordingly the Christmas season officially begins at the setting of the sun on Christmas Eve with Vespers, the evening session of prayer traditionally held at 6pm among the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Churches. This prayer is held on Christmas Eve to welcome in the Holy Season. For many Catholics this includes a midnight mass. For others it is staying up until midnight to welcome in the first day of Christmas. Many of the feast days and saints days within the period of Christmastide are celebrated less often today, or their traditions have been under pressure from commercial culture in the mainstream. However these sacred days along with their traditions live on across the world and we hope to play a small part in keeping them alive by sharing a few with you.
Many in Britain for instance still hold to tradition by decorating their house and putting up their Christmas tree on the night of December 24th in order to begin the celebrations the next day. Christmas Day is just the beginning of nearly two weeks of feasting and fun.
Gifts were commonly given and spread out between Christmas Day and January 6th. The English Carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas", originating in the region around Newcastle, shares this sentiment and tradition as young man plans an outstanding gift for his "true love" during each of these twelve days of feasting (six geese a laying) and celebration (nine ladies dancing.)
Within Christmastide fall many distinct days of celebration related to the story of Jesus' birth, such as St Stephen’s Day on December 26th. This holiday celebrates the martyrdom of St Stephen on 36AD. It is celebrated broadly and in a variety of ways across the Latin Church. However, in the Irish language it is also known as Wren Day due to an association between Christ and the wren made through traditional Irish mythology. Those who celebrate Wren Day do so through dressing up, dancing, putting on amateur plays many of which involving a model wren bird. St. Stephen's Day in Spain is celebrated largely in Catalonia by a meal of Canelons stuffed with the remaining meat from the previous day's feast.
In countries with less Catholic influence largely among the British Commonwealth December 26th is celebrated with the public holiday of Boxing Day. Boxing Day has its origins in the giving of charitable gifts to the less fortunate following what was often a day of feasting and excess. The boxes refer to those in which alms were given to charity in medieval times. This tradition evolved over the years and following Christmas Day and its feasting people would box up their extra food and goods to donate to the poor.
Today, Boxing Day in Britain has become a holiday of its own. Today it is a day of relaxing and enjoying the spoils of Christmas. Its about sharing the spirit of the season with your neighbors. As football, (soccer)i s a big part of almost every community in Britain, a full slate of matches are played on Boxing Day across the many divisions. These are highly anticipated and attended by many in festive dress and high spirits.
Each town or village has its own special way of celebrating. In my hometown of Scarborough in North Yorkshire, there is a local football match played between the firemen and fishermen on the beach. Everyone comes down to enjoy the community spirit and there is always a group of brave souls that choose to take on frigid North Sea, running in wearing just underwear, as others cheer them on from the shore.
In Australia the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race traditionally takes place on Boxing Day. Along with special test match Cricket played in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It is truly a season of celebration and community joy.
Childermas, or the feast of the Holy Innocents, is usually celebrated on 27th or 28th, depending on your liturgical calendar. This feast day was a day to remember the babies that were slain by King Herod, who felt threatened by the birth of a young king. This occasion is celebrated through a type of role-reversal, allowing the children to plan and give orders for the day. Allow children to choose the meal and the activities of the day.
Countries like Spain, the Phillipines, and Latin America, often celebrate through pranks. Much like April Fools, this day is meant to prank the "innocents". So perhaps you could play a trick on your children this day.
While many of these distinct local celebrations and feasts have been undercut by globalism and more modern methods of Christmas celebration, its influence can still be felt much more in Europe and South America when compared to the United States where tradition has been more quick to erode. As such it is common for Christmas festivities, decorations and feasts to last much longer after Christmas day with many more celebrations and gatherings.
The festive days and feasting continues until the Twelfth Night on January 5th which celebrates the last night of Christmas and the coming of Epiphany.
The Twelve days of Christmastide then last from this point up until the Epiphany on the 5th of January which marks the beginning of the next liturgical season Epiphanytide. The Epiphany is the celebration of the arrival of the Magi. We will be sharing more about the traditions of Epiphany next week, so come back and read more!
No matter how you choose to celebrate the Birth of Christ, of course the most important aspect is that the spiritual remains central in all that you do. However through delving into the history and tradition of Christmastide you can’t help but appreciate the intricacies and beauty of a season which has for centuries been much deeper than it is today.
It is our hope here at Heirloom Art Co. that we can all do something small this year to rediscover the traditions and meaning of the real Twelve days of Christmas. In doing so we can all play a small part in keeping age old traditions alive by making these holy days as distinct and special as possible.
Article by Adam Newbould