The Christmas Season

The Christmas Season
A Devotional Guide
Dr. Gary Waller

The celebration of Christmas begins with the celebration of Advent, which is the time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child. But, the time known as "The Christmas Season", in the church calendar, begins with Christmas day and continues for the following twelve days. In the Western Church Calendar the “Twelve Days of Christmas” are the twelve days between Christmas Day and the beginning of the season of Epiphany that begins on January 6th. The 12 days count from Christmas Night and December 26th until January 6th, Epiphany.

The origin of the Twelve Days is complicated. In the Western church, Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the time the three Wise Men or Magi arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). In some cultures, especially Hispanic and Latin American cultures, January 6th is observed as “Three Kings Day”, or simply the “Day of the Kings”. Even though December 25th is celebrated as Christmas in these cultures, January 6th is often the day for giving gifts. In some places it is traditional to give Christmas gifts for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Since Eastern Orthodox traditions use a different religious calendar, they celebrate Christmas on January 7th and observe Epiphany or Theophany on January 19th.

January 5th is called “The Twelfth Night”, it is the last day of the Christmas Season before the celebration of Epiphany (January 6th) begins. “The Twelfth Night” often included feasting along with the removal of Christmas decorations. French and English celebrations of Twelfth Night included a King's Cake in honor of the visit of the Three Magi.

The Season of Christmas—the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, give opportunity for families and the church to continue the celebration of Christmas. It also provides an opportunity to explore the great themes of salvation, discipleship, and theology. One way this has been propagated is through the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

The song has enjoyed great popularity in modern times. Many people believe that the song is about the 12 days preceding Christmas and see it as a humorous song. There have been a variety of “take-offs.” Jeff Foxworthy’s composition “A Redneck 12 Days of Christmas,” and other such renditions provide humor but little understanding of the reason for the celebration of the 12 days of Christmas.

The song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, is often seen as simply a nonsense song for children. However, there is a legend that suggests it is a song of Christian instruction dating to the 16th century religious wars in England, containing hidden references to the basic teachings of the Faith. The legend asserts that the song was a mnemonic device to teach catechism to youngsters in a way that was memorable and yet secretive. The "true love" mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but rather, refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the "days" represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn.

Many have questioned the historical accuracy of this interpretation of the origin of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Some, in the name of historical accuracy, have simply debunked it as an "urban myth.” There is little "hard" evidence available either way. Some church historians affirm this account as basically accurate, while others point out apparent historical discrepancies. The "evidence" on both sides is mostly rational, using logical deduction and probabilities. One internet site devoted to debunking hoaxes and legends says that, "there is no substantive evidence to demonstrate that the song 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' was created or used as a secret means of preserving tenets of the Catholic faith, or that this claim is anything but a fanciful modern day speculation..." (Snopes) What is omitted is that there is no "substantive evidence" that will disprove it either.

It is certainly possible that this view of the song is legendary or anecdotal. Without corroboration and in the absence of "substantive evidence," one probably should not take rigid positions on either side. That would violate the spirit of Christmas that the song is seeking to encourage. For the sake of historical accuracy, we need to acknowledge this uncertainty.

However, on another level, this uncertainty should not prevent us from using the song in celebration of the Christmas season. Many of the symbols of Christianity were not originally religious, including even the present date of Christmas, but were appropriated from contemporary culture by the Christian Faith as vehicles of worship and proclamation. Perhaps, when all is said and done, historical accuracy is not really the point. Perhaps more importantly is that Christians can celebrate their rich heritage, and God's grace, through one more avenue. Hopefully hearing the song will remind hearers in one more way of the grace of God working in transforming ways in their lives and in the world. After all, is that not the meaning of Christmas? The following devotions use the song and its legend as inspiration for daily family worship.

I hope that the daily devotions will be an opportunity for you and your family to continue to celebrate the meaning of this time of year where we remember how much God loved us. "For God so loved the World that he gave his one and only son that whosoever believes in him shall have eternal life." (John 3:16)