The 12 Days of Christmas: not just an annoying song

Suzanne made a little goof in her daily DearReader.com letter on Tuesday 12/17, and I wonder if this is a common misperception:

This morning, first thing when I woke up, the realization hit me–Christmas is almost here–should have started singing The Twelve Days of Christmas four days ago, because there are only eight days left.

No, Suzanne, you’re fine. But the confusion is understandable, I guess, in a time and place where signs of Christmas start showing up in September and are hard to find by December 27. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” aren’t just an annoying song – they’re a traditional season of celebration that begins on December 25 and lasts till January 6, originating in the idea that it took that many days for the Magi to reach Bethlehem after they saw the star. (Do you think that Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus really hung out in a stable for almost two weeks?) Wikipedia says:

The Twelve Days of Christmas and the associated evenings of those twelve days (Twelve-tide), are the festive days beginning the evening of Christmas Day (December 25) through the morning of Epiphany (January 6). The associated evenings of the twelve days begin on the evening before the specified day. Thus, the first night of Christmas is December 24โ€“25, and Twelfth Night is January 5โ€“6. This period is also known as Christmastide.

Over the centuries, differing churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame, and their interpretations. St. Stephen’s Day, for example, is December 26 in the Western Church and December 27 in the Eastern Church. December 26 is Boxing Day in the United Kingdom and some of its former colonies; December 28 is Childermas or the Feast of the Innocents. Currently, the 12 days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas night, some only on Twelfth Night, and some each of the 12 nights. What remains constant is celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th, and a period of twelve days and nights following leading to Epiphany.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit this year, since it seems like my holiday spirit is taking its sweet time showing up. The Christmas to-do list is pretty well taken care of. There’s only a little bit of shopping left to be done, although there are still gifts to be wrapped and mailed out. I hosted my office’s Holiday Breakfast on Thursday morning (and washed my hands constantly as I prepped the food, since I’m sure none of my coworkers wants a cold for Christmas either!). I think I’ve decided on the menu for Christmas Day dinner; I still need to shop for groceries, but that’s just extra stuff on the regular shopping list for this weekend anyway. My point is, it’s not like things are really all that hectic and crazy less than a week before Christmas. It’s more that I’m not really “feeling it” yet, and based on some responses to Lylah’s recent post on The 36-Hour Day, it isn’t just me (which I always find reassuring), and it isn’t just because both Tall Paul and I are trying to shake colds.

I’m wondering why things have come to this – a huge buildup to December 25, and then bye-bye, and thank goodness this is over for another year! It’s easy to blame it on commercialization, but complaints about that have been around for my whole 43 years and probably even longer. Granted, the season does seem to start being commercialized earlier every year, and I think that gets some people burnt out on the whole thing before it even arrives. And while I’ve mentioned a number of times that I haven’t been a churchgoer for a while, I think that the fact that the secular elements of the Christmas season seem to be taking over in a lot of places is probably a big factor in the buildup. Santa Claus is the big guy (in more ways than one), and once he has come and gone, there’s nothing more to talk about.

Well, I’m starting to feel that if my Christmas spirit is going to arrive late, it might as well stay longer, and I’m trying to move into a “Twelve Days of Christmas” mindset. This isn’t something I’ve talked about with my family, since I’ve just begun to put a name to it, so we have no plans to observe any of it formally – no Boxing Day (Tall Paul and I both have to be at work on the 26th; what’s up with that?), no Twelfth Night – but I really think I want to recognize that Christmas Day isn’t the end of the celebration; it’s supposed to be the start. I’d like to try to keep Christmas for those twelve days following, which makes me a little less stressed that I don’t feel totally into keeping it just yet; and I’m not going to stress out over exactly how I’m going to do it, either. Not stressing is kind of the point.

I’m not talking about twelve days of crazy gift-giving, though:

Twelve drummers drumming
Eleven pipers piping
Ten lords a-leaping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

Or the items on Bob and Doug McKenzie’s list either (I really tried to find a video of this, but wasn’t too happy with what I found, so I decided to skip it):

Doug You start.
Bob Okay. On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: a beer.
Doug On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: two turtlenecks,
Bob And a beer. (Okay…) On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: three French toast,
Doug Two turtlenecks,
Bob And a beer. (Okay…)
Doug There should be more there, eh?
Bob Where? On the… go.
Doug Fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: four pounds of backbacon,
Bob Three French toast,
Doug Two turtlenecks,
Bob And a beer.
Doug In a tree. See, you need more.
Bob Fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: five golden touques!
Doug Four pounds of backbacon,
Bob Three French toast,
Doug Two turtlenecks,
Bob And a beer, what was it?
Together In a tree!
Bob Okay, on the sixth… go.
Doug Of Christmas, my true love gave to me: six packs of two-four,
Bob & BG Singers Five golden touques!
Doug Four pounds of backbacon,
Bob Three French toast,
Doug Two turtlenecks,
Bob And a beer,
Together In a tree!
Bob Okay.
Doug Okay.
Bob On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: seven packs of smokes,
Doug (Nice gift…) Oh, six packs of two-four! (BG Singers also sing “nice gift”.)
Bob & BG Singers Five golden touques!
Doug Four pounds of backbacon,
Bob Three French toast,
Doug Two turtlenecks,
Bob And a beer,
Together In a tree!
Bob Right, I keep forgetting.
Doug Phew! This should just be the two days of Christmas, it’s too hard for us!
Bob Um…
Doug Go, hoser.
Bob Oh.
Together Eigth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Doug Eight comic books,
All Seven packs of smokes, six packs of two-four,
(Bob and Doug become unsynchronized with the BG Singers, and quit singing.)
BG Singers Five golden touques! Four pounds of backbacon, three French toast, two turtlenecks,
All And a beer,
Doug On my tree!
Bob Yeah. That beer’s empty. Okay. Day,
BG Singers Twelve!
Bob Uh, twelve.
Doug Good day, and welcome to day twelve.
BG Singers Five golden touques!
All Four pounds of backbacon, three French toast, two turtlenecks, and a beer, in a tree!

(I always liked their version. Please don’t judge me.)

I’m just thinking that there’s a long tradition of Christmas Day being the start of a special time of year, not the end, and that it would be nice to move back toward that. What do you think?

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  • My Christmas spirit has been slow in coming too, although I think it hit me today as I was driving home from work and realized that my vacation starts today. Finally!

    It does seem like there is a big build up to the 25th and then bam, it’s over so suddenly. It sometimes even seems anticlimactic. It wouldn’t make a good book, if you ask me. I completely agree with you–it would be more fun to look at Christmas as a start rather than the finish.

  • Episcopaliann

    Epiphany Clarification: Although the twelve days of Christmas traditionally end in the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January (otherwise known as the Manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles), we have no evidence that the Magi arrived when Jesus was twelve days old. In fact, I learned in a seminary class this fall, it is likely that they did not arrive “from the East” for a year or two; travel would have taken at least that long. Matthew’s gospel, the only gospel to relate the story of the Magi, does not really say.

    Here’s a piece of related trivia: in the earliest (c. 2nd century) paintings of the Magi, they are depicted with turbans, not crowns. Later icons/pictures of Mary with the toddler Jesus on her lap with no Magi are like this because WE are the Magi looking in on mother and Child!

    Christmas is indeed always a new beginning, a reminder of how God so extravagantly and infinitely loves us by sending Jesus into the world not just two thousand years ago, but daily! In these last days of Advent, may we all prepare the mangers of our hearts to receive the newborn king, the vast love of God, on twelve days of Christmas and every day.

    With wishes for a very Merry Christmas, ~Ann

  • Thank you for reprinting Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis’ great parody! I loved that record.

    Now I gotta go see if I can find a transcript of “The Beer Hunter.”

  • Hey! I love that song!!

    And to follow on the Magi/Jesusy trivia, another little-known fact is that January 1st was usually celebrated as the Circumcision of the Lord Jay Cee. Ow.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circumcision_of_Christ

  • Literary Feline – Enjoy your vacation! I’m just taking days off here and there from Christmas Eve through January 2.

    I like your book analogy, and agree that sometimes Christmas itself does end up feeling anticlimactic, which is NOT how it should be.

    Episcopaliann – First I have to get this out of the way: Woohoo, a comment from someone I actually know OFFLINE! (Ann will become an ordained minister next summer, and we’ve known each other for 17 years.)

    On topic: Thanks for your contributions! It does make sense that, given travel at the time, the Magi would have taken far longer than two weeks to arrive.

    Donna – “The Beer Hunter”? OK, THAT one I don’t know. But the McKenzies’ “12 Days” was one of my favorite tracks on Dr. Demento’s Greatest Christmas Novelty CD Ever, which I can’t get to play on the computer for some reason, so I don’t have it in iTunes. ๐Ÿ™

    Madame Meow – Thank goodness for you and Donna; I’m glad I’m not alone in my fondness for “five golden touques,” etc.

    And given that January 1 is eight days after December 25, it makes sense, based on Jewish tradition, that it would commemorate the Holy Circumcision. As you said, ow.