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The Twelve Days of Christmas - They're When?
By Pearl Homiak

Believe it or not, December 25th is the first day of Christmas. You'd never know it, especially if you happen to be shopping anytime after Halloween. Plastic crèches, soldiers, and Santa Clauses; Christmas trees, colored and sometimes blinking lights; red ribbons, candy canes, and homes and lawns with varying degrees of lighted decorations-all begin to mushroom each year from the beginning of November, and sometimes even sooner.

I remember that when I was very young Christmas was hardly even mentioned before Thanksgiving. No one that we knew put up a Christmas tree until a few days before Christmas (December 25th; "Orthodox Christmas" took place on January 7th in those days. However, most Orthodox people decorated for Christmas on December 25th, which was celebrated as a gift-giving day. January 7th was reserved for the religious observance of Christmas). Even department stores held off until their day-after-Thanksgiving sales. Christmas parties took place after Christmas, and people sang and played recordings of Christmas carols from Christmas Eve until New Year's Day or even up to Epiphany. The Christmas season was a meaningful time back then, but what is it now?

There is a song we all know called "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that describes gift giving over a period of time-twelve days. St. Ephraim the Syrian first mentioned the period of the "twelve days," according to one source, sometime before the year 400.

The Council of Tours made it official in 597. This period of time begins at Christmas and ends at Epiphany.

The origin of the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," has been recently disputed. I had no idea it was more than a cute song until a friend of mine e-mailed an explanation of it to me a few years ago. According to the missive I received, the song was actually a "catechism song" used by Catholics in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The song was supposedly used to teach children the tenets of the faith during this period, when law forbade practicing Catholicism. As such, the song's gifts and other images have the following religious representations (compiled from various sources):

  • True love = God
  • Me = every baptized person
  • Partridge = Jesus Christ, who, like a bird, will protect God's defenseless children
  • Pear tree = the Cross, which was made from a tree.
  • 2 Turtle doves = the Old and New Testaments; also, two turtle doves were sacrificed when Jesus was first brought to the temple,
  • 3 French hens = faith, hope, and charity (sacrificial giving); also, gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the Wise Men
  • 4 Calling birds = the four Gospels and/or the four Evangelists
  • 5 Golden rings = the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) which gives the history of man's fall from grace
  • 6 Geese a-laying = the six days of creation
  • 7 Swans a-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:6-8); also, the seven sacraments
  • 8 Maids a-milking = the eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10); also, milking symbolizes Christ's love for us
  • 9 Ladies dancing = the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)
  • 10 Lords a-leaping = the Ten Commandments
  • 11 Pipers piping = the eleven faithful Apostles
  • 12 Drummers drumming = the twelve points of the Apostles Creed; also, the twelve Apostles preaching

Recently I came across a different source of the song. It seems that several centuries ago in France children played a non-religious memory game called "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Each child recited a verse of the song. If someone missed a verse he/she had a consequence. This game was apparently first recorded in a book published in England in the late 18th century. However, the game could have been known for a long time before that. Further, the religious application of it might have been based on the French game in the first place. Who knows? And, anyway, is it really important? There is more than one way to convey the tenets of faith, and singing representative songs is one way to do it.

We still hear the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but it has nothing to do with Christianity. (I haven't found any information about children today playing a game called by the same name). Sadly, many modern-day children don't know the real story of Christmas, of Christ's Nativity. For them Christmas is only a great decorating, celebrating, and present-getting time that happens to begin revving up after Halloween and reaches its high point on December 25th. (Even Thanksgiving gets minimized). After that, everything returns to "normal," except for more celebrating on New Year's Eve.

Maybe people think the "twelve days of Christmas" start on December 13th and are the most important shopping days before Christmas. To some people "the twelve days of Christmas" might even be the twelve Saturday-and-Sunday-department-store-best-sale-days between Halloween and Christmas (there really are twelve Saturdays and Sundays during this time, and don't most people shop then?).

I see nothing wrong with shopping well in advance for the sake of my personal economy and more unique and unhurried gift selection. (In fact, one year I actually got all of my Christmas shopping done before advent started. The only store I went to during advent was the grocery story, and that as rarely as I could. What a meaningful advent and Christmas I had that year!). However, the untimely pre-season decorating, the never-ending-department-store-carol-playing, and the during-advent Christmas partying are too much for me. I'm all for getting things back into perspective. We shouldn't allow ourselves to be dictated to by advertising and department store companies. Let's put the celebration of Christmas back where it belongs.

A while back I decided to make changes in my Christmas-related habits to refocus my celebration of Christ's Nativity. I stopped playing tapes of Christmas carols during advent. Instead, I started playing them on Christmas day. We also continued to turn the TV off during advent, something we have done for more than twenty years (except for one chaotic year).

Over the last several years I have deliberately been sending my Christmas cards after December 25th when I can truly say, "Christ is Born! Glorify Him!" It just seems to make more sense that way. While everyone else is watching TV or snoozing after Christmas dinner, I sit down after the dishes are done and write out my Christmas cards. If I send out a Christmas letter, I write it then. Within the next couple of days, I mail out my cards with joy, rather than the hurry-up-let's-get-this-over-with anxiety that plagues pre-Christmas card-senders. If I'm not home for Christmas, then I get the cards ready for mailing the next day. So if you receive a Christmas card from me shortly after Christmas, it's not late. It's right on time!

I like the idea of Christmas starting instead of ending on December 25th. We usually don't celebrate our own birthdays until the day they occur or later. So why do we, in effect, celebrate Jesus Christ's birthday (Nativity) so long in advance? Christmas trees and outdoor decorations could still be put up ahead of time. However, they don't have to be turned on until Christmas Eve. After all, no one would light the candles on a birthday cake two months before the birthday party.

It doesn't take much effort to make these changes, but it does feel weird at first. Yet it's not a matter of bucking the establishment. It's really all about getting things back into perspective. And it just makes sense.

Our society has come a long way from St. Ephraim the Syrian's statement about the significant twelve-day period between Christmas and Epiphany. However, I question our ultimate destination. We seem to proclaim Christmas earlier and earlier as time goes on.

September 11 was a wake up call to put our lives in America back on track. I believe that means more than just becoming more patriotic. Everything Americans do in life needs to be reevaluated and adjusted so it has the proper meaning and priority. Focusing our celebration of Christmas after December 25th could help us do that.

The Twelve Days of Christmas became important to western Christians many centuries ago. However, this period ultimately degenerated to become filled with superstitions, fear, and other negative elements. The song," The Twelve Days of Christmas," was used to teach spiritual truths, then it, too, degenerated, becoming a cute folksong. From now on let's limit the pre-Christmas hustle and bustle. Let's use the real "twelve days"-between Christmas and Epiphany-to pull away from the over commercialization of Christ's Nativity. Let's start making the Twelve Days of Christmas something special and joyful-a real celebration of Christ's birth-for us in America and for our children. We will be glad we did.

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