The 12 Days of Christmas: The Misconceptions. The Myths. The Magic.

You know the song! I think my favorite version is the Muppets singing with John Denver, Miss Piggy trilling, Five GOOOOLLLD RRRings!  If presents really were exchanged on this premise, by the end of the 12 Days one would have received–or given–a total of 364 gifts: 12 Partridges in pear trees, 22 turtle doves, 30 French hens, 36 calling (or colly-meaning coal black) birds, 40 gold rings, 42 geese a-laying AND 42 swans a-swimming, 40 maids a milking, 36 ladies dancing, 30 lords a-leaping, 22 pipers piping, and 12 drummers drumming. Can you picture those poor UPS, FedEx, USPS, and Amazon drivers and their vans?

I’ve heard the song was a way of catechizing early Christians-each number and gift having a Biblical connection. But I’ve also read there’s no proof that’s true, especially since the gifts have changed since the original. But there is sacred significance to the 12 days.

A popular misconception is the 12 Days of Christmas ends on Christmas Day. The stores seem to stop playing carols by closing time on Christmas Eve. Maybe workers are relieved since they’ve listened to Jingle Bells, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, and All I Want for Christmas is You since before Thanksgiving. Hubby and I did a quick run to the Dollar Tree on the morning of the 24th and the Christmas aisles were stripped of red and green trinkets and ribbons, and already replaced with Valentine reds and pinks and Easter pastels. Santas and snowmen were moved aside by cupids and bunnies. I guess it’s fitting payback for a guy accused of crowding out Tom Turkey, but it was disheartening.

Disheartening because, the 12 Days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day ushering in the season of Christmastide that ends on Epiphany.

I recently listened to a lecture series and because I did, got a peek at the presenter’s book-in-progress, a latest weaving of ancient Celtic Winter Solstice celebrations with early Christian beliefs. As the sun ‘died’ during the Winter Solstice, the Celts believed prayers and sacred practices, a 12 day festival, would bring about the re-birth of the sun and their lives would be saved. As Christians traveled into the area they shared their message of a rising son and repurposed some of the Celtic practices to fit Christian beliefs.

In the book, the author lays out each of the 12 days with the Celtic celebration alongside the Christian manifestation, including various saint feast days, scripture, and reflection questions.

While I’ve always noted Christmastide by keeping the tree up and my own red and green trinkets sprinkled throughout the house, this year I added the book’s section on the 12 Days of Christmas to my morning meditation.

The section isn’t finished, but finished enough to deepen the sacredness and fun of the season and soften the transition back into post-holiday life. I mean, who wouldn’t want to honor Distaff-Grumbling Day when people are given permission and encouraged to grouse? That’s the 11th day.

On the 4th day Christians remember the Holy Innocents while the Celts honored the warrior who protected birth and child. At first glance it may seem strange to connect the Feast of the Holy Family with a wild boar, but the boar sow is a fierce protector of her offspring, as we’d expect our families to be. There’s the Feast of Fools when the focus is looking at things from a different perspective. The 12th day prepares for the 13th, Epiphany, when ‘radiance is made manifest.’

For the Celts, the sun’s return promised that power had been restored and life would continue. Last week as I drove my Grands home, we talked about how light it was outside compared to just a week or so earlier when it was already dark when we strapped them into car seats. On Wednesday I saw my daffodils poking up through last fall’s decay. So I understand a little how the Celts must have felt with the gradual brightening of each day.

These days the sun’s rising angle shoots blindingly into my dining room. As I journaled on the 12th day, I happened to look up and the rays were hitting this tree of life orb hanging in the window, making it sparkle and the tree inside seem to burst into flames. I smiled because how fitting to be writing about ‘radiance made manifest’ at the moment radiance filled the room.

Yesterday we celebrated Epiphany when tradition holds the Wisemen visited the Holy Family. In a couple weeks our Church will return to the liturgical season of Ordinary Time, yet the earlier church called the weeks between Epiphany and Lent the season of Epiphany, Epiphanytide, or the Season of the Kings.  

The day marked the official end of Christmastide, and I’m slowly letting it go. The Christmas cookies are gone. Thank-you notes are sent. This week I’ll undress the tree (maybe) and switch out Santas and the reds and greens for snowmen, snowflakes and shades of blue. (I have to bring a bit of my Midwest winter in somehow.)

While I’ve always noted Christmastide, its spirit changed after Epiphany. Part of my journaling last week was posing the question, how different would my days be if I thought of these weeks as Epiphanytide instead of ordinary time? Of continuing to seek radiance manifested? I still don’t know the answer, but today I start the journey of finding out.

As the days lengthen minute by minute, may we keep our eyes open to all the epiphanies–big and small–taking place around us.  


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2 Responses to The 12 Days of Christmas: The Misconceptions. The Myths. The Magic.

  1. Jackie Kempf says:

    Many years ago, we received presents from persons unknown starting 12 days before Christmas. Christmas eve the 12th gift was delivered by one of the ministering visitors of the Mormon church.dressed as Santa. We started picking a family annually that might of had a bad year or needed a boost and played the 12 days of Christmas for them. I still do this every few years when it just feels like the right thing to do but it has always felt a little off because I knew the 12 days were those between Christmas and Epiphany. I enjoyed reading your piece about the 12 days. Maybe next time I will do it as it should be played. ❤

    • Thank you. I think these days can be really special. The more I read about them the more I’ll be celebrating them too. Interesting the gifts came from the Mormon church with someone dressed as Santa. That was really sweet and such an example of generosity for you to show your boys, though I’m not surprised you’d do that. Enjoy your Epiphanytide!

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