Christmas is a season, not just one day
As much as I love the Muppets singing with John Denver in this scratchy YouTube video*, lately when I hear The 12 Days of Christmas I’m reminded the song isn’t about the season of Christmas at all but actually the 12 days a f t e r. Although we hear it nearly everywhere during the holiday season, ironically, the sing-song verses rarely resound during the 12 days the song represents.
Say what? There actually is a time period called “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Yes.
I’m grateful to be learning the new-to-me rhythms of the church calendar so familiar to many of my friends from more traditional faiths. The anchors in the Christian year, beginning with the period just before the birth of Christ, provide a way to extend the Christmas celebrations rather than marking them as one frenzied gift-giving day.
Those 12 days, or “Twelvetide,” begin on Christmas Day and extend to January 5th with Twelfth night or Epiphany Eve. So why do we hear that crazy song from the end of November all the way through the holidays? It is fun to sing for one, I suppose, as anyone who’s ever attended an elementary school Christmas program can attest. And the various versions out there–including the Muppets and this one**–can elicit a much-needed boost, especially when we’re standing in long lines at the check-out counter.
Perhaps we should focus on this instead…..
The 12 Days of Christmas is a pause built into the church calendar for a slow unwind and nudge to the other side of the year. Extending Christmas energies and celebrations over a period of 12 days is so much better for us, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. That is the wisdom of Twelvetide, the slow walk from Christmas Day towards Epiphany. But as our culture often does, veering away from the sacred and turning towards the fun, those 12 days are often overshadowed, marked predominantly by the song more than anything else.
When I consider consider the built-in wisdom afforded by this centuries-old observance of Twelvetide, I see how desperately it’s needed today when we want to over-accelerate our lives during the holidays. Grown-ups and children alike can all use some help readjusting the day after Christmas. Although there can often be a significant let down on the other side of that one day, and the days after, children feel it more keenly. Their anticipation is gone, often replaced with a neediness they can’t define. And no wonder—when your happy/busy meter has been on HIGH for all those pre-Christmas weeks, the letdown can be terrific.
But there is something we can do. Maybe a gradual return to normalcy could help alleviate the sudden crash. Taking a slow journey through Twelvetide allows the time to process both the joy of the gifts and the challenges of the holiday. There are calendar occasions on the days after Christmas that allow us a chance to box up gifts for the poor (Boxing Day, the Feast of St. Stephen) and ways to anticipate the meaning of why Christ came in the first place. The occasion of Epiphany–God’s ‘showing forth’ to the world on January 6th, is the last church feast in the arc of holy days. Epiphany, when you think about it, is really the sending point of Christmas, not the ending.
It is possible to keep Christmas with us all through the year, or at least for more than a day. If we anchor ourselves in the wisdom of the church calendar feasts and fasts, we can look forward to December 25th with anticipation, as well as a sense of release and rest in the days after.
Christmas Day is just the beginning of the season. Here’s to living it well.
–This post is excerpted from my book “Living the Season Well-Reclaiming Christmas.” You can order it HERE.
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