The 12 days of Christmas
Last night my church, Trinity Community Church, held its annual Christmas dinner at the church. Those of us attending all enjoyed it even if we got a little silly at times. One of the highlights of the evening was a group singing of the song “The 12 days of Christmas.” If we set aside those who think we shouldn’t sing that song at all because it is “not Christian”, there is not a whole lot of agreement on why we sing it, how we sing it, and what the song even means.
Invariably, since the song would be ridiculously boring if we just sat there and sang its long and repetitive lyrics, we often try to liven it up, as we did last night, with gimmicks, motions or some sort of activity. If we didn’t do something like that it would end up being a Christmas knock-off of “A hundred bottles of beer” or something.
In any event, the whole thing triggered a discussion about the song at our table. One person had heard that the song had “Christian roots” and that the gifts were a symbolic way of expressing a Christian message. I’ve found a few people online who agree with her but not many. Most seem to agree that the origins of the song are shrouded in mystery. But I see no reason, if we feel the need, that we can’t believe that those roots are there.
What struck me however is that there is universal agreement that the 12 days begin at Christmas (or even the day after) and end with “Twelfth Night” on the eve of Epiphany, January 6th (or on January 6th.) It is historically true that through much of church history that the period leading up to Christmas, what some call Advent, was not so much a celebration as it was something akin to Lent. It was a time for quiet reflection and even fasting and prayer. The party started on Christmas and the arrival of the infant Messiah was a 12-day celebration with a variety of feasts.
Now, however, if churches mark Advent at all, as ours does, this is often a celebration too. There tends not to be a solemnity about that time. Songs like “Oh come, oh come Emmanuel”, which are really solemn Advent songs, are either ignored or downplayed. The “Christmas season” which for several decades started on Thanksgiving and now seems to be trending toward starting right after Halloween is all before December 25th. The party stops on the 26th. In short, the “12 Days” has become a cute but somewhat meaningless song.
So is this good or bad?
I took a couple of hours off after typing that last line to stop and think about how I might answer that. My inclination is to say “I don’t know.” I can see why, historically, the church marked a solemn Advent. It probably is not a bad thing to take some time each year and remember the “awaiting” that precluded the birth of Jesus. Even though they, for the most part, missed it, there was no question that the Jews at that time longed for the Messiah; and I can see how the remembrance of that longing helps prepare us for the joy of the incarnation.
The reality is that, like it or not, times have changed. December, and much of November, is now the Christmas season. If we Christians, the people for whom the holiday should mean the most, walk around fasting and wearing long faces when everyone else is celebrating it raises questions and causes problems. Nobody likes a killjoy. Notwithstanding all the commercial influences, all the secular celebrations, all the “pagan” influences, this is a time when the world pretty much remembers Jesus coming as a babe. They are joining a party that belongs to us. I don’t see a problem adjusting the timing to get more people to the party.
In the end, whether it is the 40 days before or the 12 days after the 25th; whether the dating is wrong altogether; whether some feel we should forget the whole thing; any time you can get people to think, even in passing, about Jesus you can count me in.