What are the Twelve Days of Christmas?

A lot of people don’t realize they already know this, but Christmas is actually a season, not just a single holiday, and the length of this season is twelve days.  Yes, The Twelve Days of Christmas is not just a weird Christmas carol, it’s actually a thing.  That means today, January 5th, I’m still able to write to you all: Merry Christmas!

But what are the twelve days all about?  Well, some of the days are pretty well traditionally standardized, but some of them aren’t.  What I’m going to share here is mostly based on tradition shared both by Roman Catholic and contemporary Anglican Gospel readings for daily mass.

On the first day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – the birth of Jesus Christ.

December 25th is the day everybody knows – the day we begin the celebration of the arrival of the Word Made Flesh.  You can read more about that here.

On the second day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – of St. Stephen the Martyr.

December 26th is popularly known as Boxing Day, but in the Christian calendar this is the feast of Stephen (referenced in that song “Good King Wenceslas”).  Surprising to celebrate a martyr on the second day of Christmas?  Find out why here.

On the third day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – of St. John the Evangelist.

December 27th is another major holiday, remembering the Apostle John, who wrote a Gospel book, Revelation, and three short epistles in the New Testament.  I’ve written before of his link to the Christmas season here.

On the fourth day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – the Holy Innocents.

December 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents, a formal name for the infant boys of Bethlehem who were slaughtered by the order of King Herod.  Unlike St. Stephen, this tragic story actually is biblically linked to the Christmas story, but if you want more thoughts on how this fits, check it out here.

On the fifth day of Christmas, Christ’s true love sung to me – Simeon’s Song!

On December 29th we are taken forty days beyond the story of Christ’s birth, to his presentation in the Temple.  Although this will also be celebrated on its own feast day forty days after Christmas (on Feb. 2nd), we now walk through it in two parts, today focusing on the prophetic Song of Simeon in Luke 2:22-35.

On the sixth day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – Anna the Prophetess.

On December 30th we continue the story of Christ’s presentation in the Temple with Luke 2:36-40.  There we hear of another character, Anna the Prophetess, who also provides the Holy Family with further insight into the future of the life of their son, Jesus.

On the seventh day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – “In the beginning.”

Although John 1:1-18 is among the traditional readings for Christmas day, we return to this passage on December 31st to take in the epic nature of Jesus’ origin in eternity as being the Word of God who was both God himself and with God in the beginning.

On the eighth day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – Christ’s Circumcision.

January 1st isn’t just new year’s day, in the Christian calendar it’s another major holy day.  As recorded in Luke 2:15-21, Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day, as required by the Old Testament Law.  Where yesterday’s focus was on the divinity of Christ, today’s holiday focuses on the humanity of Christ.

On the ninth day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – John’s testimony.

On January 2nd we return to the gospel of John where we left off two days ago, reading verses 19-28.  The testimony of John the Baptist is that he was preparing the way for Jesus to arrive.  To a large extent, this is a throwback to what the Advent season was all about, but now in the context of the Christmas season we find ourselves standing with Christ, looking back at John, and saying “yes, he was right!”

On the tenth day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – of Jesus’ Baptism.

January 3rd brings us to the next passage, John 1:29-34, in which John testifies about his experience baptizing Jesus, and the baptism that Jesus himself would later provide.  This dual dynamic of the giving and receiving of ministry puts Jesus in a central position, connecting both the ministry of God and the ministry of the human race, and thus he is identified as “the Son of God.”

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – of the first disciples.

January 4th continues the story with John 1:35-42.  There we read of the first disciples to begin following Jesus.  Although this theme overlaps with the feast day of St. Andrew, it finds its echo here in the Christmas season because this is critical to who Jesus is: he calls people to follow him.  Thus the words “Behold, the Lamb of God” must be followed with the invitation “Come and see.”

On the twelfth day of Christmas, Christ’s true love told to me – Jesus’ call to ministry.

January 5th concludes the Christmas season with the conclusion of John chapter 1, with verses 43-51.  Again, Jesus is amassing disciples to follow him, but where yesterday people sought after him, today Jesus takes the initiative to call others to follow him.  This episode also has its echo when St. Bartholomew is commemorated, but its purpose here in the Christmas season reinforces the lesson that it is not we who choose to gather around Christ, but Christ who calls us to gather around himself.

What happens next?

At the end of these twelve days of Christmas is “twelfth night,” which is the evening leading up to the celebration of the Epiphany on January 6th.  Epiphany also comes with its own season.  You can see an overview of its major holy days here.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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