If one tried to abstract it from contemporary American life, one would think Christmas time lasts from the day after Thanksgiving to the day after New Year's. With the warm-up getting longer every year, as the first Christmas stuff and Halloween costumes can be seen in the stores at the same time now. The Christmas shopping and other preparations start in earnest after Thanksgiving, on through December to the Big Day, then hang around for a week to give a festive atmosphere to New Year's Eve and Day, then come down. With Valentine's Day candy in the stores pretty much the next day.
And it fits with the world's Christmas. The church has a little different season going on. December is largely taken up with Advent, and while the idea is preparation there too, it isn't about buying presents and food, it's about repentance in preparation for celebrating the coming in the flesh of God as Jesus who will die to save us from our sins, and for the coming of Jesus again in glory to judge the living and the dead on the Last Day. For which reason the colour of Advent is purple, the colour of royalty and also of repentance. Neither his historical coming nor his return is prepared for by buying stuff.
The celebration for the church begins on Christmas, and then continues, not begins with December and ends with it with New Year's tacked on. Our manger scenes often have the humble station shepherds and the worldly important visitors -- called Magi, Wise Men, or Kings most often -- both there, but as the story reads the Three Kings weren't there at Christmas itself but arrived on the day we celebrate as Epiphany, 6 January. There are twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, and these are the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Now how did that happen? No-body knows. The thing is, Epiphany is a much older feast than Christmas, and now is largely forgotten by most, lost in the shuffle by many, and celebrated by a few. Now how did THAT happen? Well, to me it looks like this. By the late fourth century after Christ, 6 January as the Epiphany existed. The earliest known reference dates from 361, and in those days the references indicate not just the appearance of the Three Kings -- epiphany is an English form of a Greek word meaning "appearance" or "manifestation" -- but rather the appearance or manifestation, the epiphany, of God, including his birth! No Christmas, this is "Christmas" as well as a celebration all the other events of the young Jesus up to and including his Baptism and his first public miracle at the wedding in Cana. A very big day!
In the Western Church, these events began to be spun off from Epiphany. By the sixth century 25 December had become the celebration of his birth. His baptism began to be celebrated after Epiphany, so Epiphany itself in the West fairly early on assumed a focus on the arrival of the Three Kings (Magi, etc.), who, not being Jews but Gentiles, has the significance of the appearance or manifestation of the Messiah to the Gentiles. This did not happen in the Eastern Church, where it retained its original character much longer, with many places much later adopting 25 December as the feast of his birth but keeping the celebration of his baptism on Epiphany, and in a few places yet keeping the Nativity on this day, with the added complication that 6 January in the older (Julian, as in Julius Caesar) calendar still used liturgically by the Eastern Church is 19 January in the Gregorian (as in Pope Gregory) calendar used in the West and now pretty much world wide as a convention. In the Eastern Church the day is more commonly called the Theophany -- divine appearance or divine manifestation -- and is considered the third most important feast in the church's observance, Easter (Pascha) being first and Pentecost second. There ain't no Twelve Days of Christmas for our brethren in the Eastern Church, it's a Western thing, but on the other hand Theophany is more in line with the original of what we in the West call Epiphany, if we remember it to call it anything at all. And to complicate it further, after a millennium and one half of usage, Rome, ever at the ready to tinker with the very tradition it says it conserves, decided at its last council, in the 1960s (Vatican II, you may have heard of it) to make it a moveable feast as the Sunday after the first Saturday in January, so if you listen to Rome (and if you listen to Rome, quit!) there ain't no Twelve Days of Christmas in the West either! Nice going, guys.
For us confessional Lutherans -- those who seek to hold to the catholic, as distinct from the Catholic, faith and church -- while our latest service book, Lutheran Service Book, is infected with the latest Roman virus (please support research that a cure may be found in our time!) it appears that Epiphany has survived as 6 January.
So we still got 'em, The Twelve Days of Christmas!!
Now here's the deal. NOW is when all the fun and festivities are supposed to happen -- LEAVE those decorations up, right on up through Twelfth Night (that's the night of 5-6 January, in case you weren't counting, and yes, that from which the title of Shakespeare's great play is taken and so far has not been retitled "First Sunday After The First Saturday in January Night" though who knows, sillier revisionism happens all the time), maybe even GIVE A GIFT to someone special for Epiphany (which in some places in the gift giving day, not Christmas) just as God gave himself to us and the Three Kings brought gifts to him, BAKE A CAKE (that's how Kings Cake started and still is done in some places), HAVE FRIENDS OVER -- you get the idea! The appearance or manifestation of God is just too big to contain in one day!!
And therefore the church doesn't but extends the celebration of God's coming among us over twelve days, so don't let the world, or, sadly, some entities called church, take a bit of it away from you!
Side note: I'm of English descent, but I was adopted by people of Irish descent, and my Dad, growing up pre-conciliar RC, always referred to Epiphany as "Little Christmas", an Irish custom from when 6 January in the pre-Gregorian calendar was also Christmas, which in later life I was to find out was one echo of all the stuff I mentioned above. Decorations were always left up until then, and there was one more "Christmas" gift. I do the same in my house now. If plans hold up, I'll post about Los Tres Reyes (Spanish for The Three Kings) on 6 January, having been culturally adopted by the Puerto Rican contingent at university.
Another side note: "Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the Feast of Stephen". What's that all about? You think Epiphany got lost in the shuffle, what about this feast of Stephen? It's 26 December, the day after Christmas. Why? Because the Stephen remembered on this day is the first recorded martyr for the Christian faith, in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and, it being the custom in the church to commemorate someone not on the day of his earthly birth but the day of his birth to eternal life (generally called death in the world), the first person known to have been born to eternal life by martyrdom for his faith is celebrated right after the earthly birth of him who came to make eternal life available to us.
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