The Twelfth Day of Christmas

Christmas, of course, traditionally is not just a day, but a season. It’s only in the modern era, in predominantly Protestant cultures, that it has been reduced to a frenzy of activity culminating on a one-day gift-giving feast followed-up with … nothing. At 12:01 a.m. sharp the local radio station abruptly cuts off the flow of Christmas carols, the store decorations come down and everyone pretends to be glad it’s finally over.

On the Catholic liturgical calendar, the weeks leading up to Christmas are called Advent and are a time of preparation for Christ’s coming. The idea being not only to prepare yourself to celebrate Christ’s first coming, but also to get yourself in a state of readiness for his Second Coming, the day and the hour of which are unknown and may come at any time.

The arrival of Christmas, then, marks the end of Advent and the beginning of the next season on the Church calendar, which is the Christmas season.

Although our culture at large seems oblivious to these facts (and why shouldn’t it be?), most people at least are familiar with the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. As a kid this song was very puzzling to me, not only because I couldn’t figure out how you can make a gift of 12 drummers, but also because Christmas, as far as anyone had ever told me, was a day, not twelve days. People would go around singing this song to their heart’s content but apparently clueless as to what it was talking about.

The more curious among us will have discovered, at least in our adulthood, that the twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days from Christmas Day, December 25, to the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Upon learning this, my first reaction was, “If only!” For me there has always been such a crash-and-burn after Christmas, such a letdown once the day itself had passed — you spend four weeks preparing for it and then bam! it’s over — that the idea of prolonging it for 11 more days was extremely appealing to me. But how could one do that?

For a few years I did my best to have my own, private little twelve days of Christmas, mainly by stubbornly leaving my lights up and continuing to play Christmas carols in my home and in my car. Meanwhile the neighbors one by one are taking their lights down, such that by Epiphany I’m almost embarrassed to keep turning mine on. And heaven forbid that anyone should catch me actually listening to Christmas music on, say, January 4 or later. How would I explain that?

In more recent years, though, I think my family and I have found the answer: You extend Christmas by celebrating Epiphany. Epiphany is celebrated in different ways in different cultures. In some places it’s the traditional day of gift-giving, in commemoration of the gifts brought by the Three Wise Men. Children put their shoes out to be filled with candy or money. There are special feasts and processions. But in my experience, Catholics in the United States just don’t do anything other than attend a Mass specific to the occasion (on the Sunday nearest to January 6).

My family came up with the idea of getting together on the Saturday before the Sunday on which the Church observes Epiphany at Mass (which, this year, is this Sunday, January 5). We have what is basically a second Christmas dinner, albeit not as grand as the first. We will have left the Christmas decorations up, of course, and we play and sing Christmas carols, though we leave out carols of the sillier, i.e. “Jingle Bells” variety.

Since Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men bearing gifts, and Epiphany is the traditional gift-giving day for many Christians, we have made the culmination of our celebration a gift exchange as well. However, since in our culture everyone by this time is pretty much gifted out, we make it a white elephant gift exchange, i.e. the gifts should cost nothing (or very little). There is no pressure to put a lot of thought into it since you don’t know who will end up getting your gift anyway. It’s purely for fun.

And since in between Christmas and Epiphany, we also have our New Year’s celebration — which for us is low-stress, usually involving the local relatives getting together, watching a movie and having a few drinks — what we’ve got now (following Advent) is a nice, week-and-a-half to two-week stretch of Christmas-time, starting with Christmas Day, continuing with New Year’s and culminating with the Feast of the Epiphany.

I find it a wonderful plan for eliminating the post-Christmas-Day letdown. By the end of our Epiphany party I really have had my fill of Christmas, and can take down the tree with a light heart (though we leave our indoor nativity scene up until the following Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is the official close of the season).

epiphany (2)

Does anyone else celebrate Epiphany? How do you do it?

[Credit for the picture goes to this blog.]

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