The 12 Days of Christmas (from Christmas Day to Epiphany eve) cover a great deal of spiritual ground. The days immediately following Christmas Day visit the issue of witness (the Greek word for this being the same root from which the English word martyr comes) in an almost encyclopedic manner:
- St. Stephen (Dec. 26, but transferred one day this year due to Sunday falling on that date, and Sunday takes precedence over lesser Holy Days) was the first martyr, witnessing to the death both in will and deed.
- St. John (Dec. 27, but transferred one day this year) was a martyr in will, but not in deed. Tradition says he died of natural causes, but was beaten and exiled for his faith. Thus, he was ready to surrender his life for Christ, but was not ultimately called to do so.
- The Holy Innocents (Dec. 28, but also transferred one day this year) were martyred in deed (mistaken as they were for the Christ-child by Herod’s soldiers) but not by will. They simply might have been Jesus; for this they and their families suffered. The Church still counts them as martyrs, so deeply does it respect their witness.
- The lesser commemorations of St. Thomas Beckett (Dec. 29), whose witness against a power-hungry monarch ultimately cost him his life (a martyr in will and deed), and St. Sylvester on Dec. 31. He was the Bishop of Rome when Christianity was officially “tolerated” by Constantine the Great, and was faced with the dramatically different mission situation of the Church after the great persecutions. He died a confessor (a faithful witness to Christ who died peacefully, but who had been prepared to die for Christ prior to Constantine).
On January 1 we come to one of the Feasts of Our Lord: the Feast of the Holy Name, when Jesus was formerly named and recognized as a member of the Jewish community in the circumcision ritual eight days after his birth. This commemoration, along with the Feasts of the Presentation in the Temple (Feb. 2) and the Transfiguration (Aug. 6) are so significant that if they fall on a Sunday, they take precedence over that Sunday’s regular readings and prayers. With Holy Name Day, the Octave (eight day period) of Christmas is completed. The remaining days of Christmastide lead to the Feast of the Epiphany.
Episcopalians are bidden to keep the full 12 days of Christmas. This includes:
- No fasting on Fridays
- Keeping Christmas decorations up during the season (taken down at Epiphany)
- Entertaining guests and offering Christmas hospitality
- Varying one’s life in such a way that the 12 days of Christmas are a time of rest and rejoicing, rather than frantic busyness.
- Sending out Christmas cards/letters during Christmas
- Here is a good site for learning more about how to keep the 12 Days!
If we have kept Advent as a time of preparation and anticipation, we will not be so tired of feasting and celebrating that we cannot keep Christmas for its full duration.
Together with saying the Daily Office from the Prayer-Book and attending Christmas liturgies at church, these patterns can help us experience the richness of this season, bringing us into deep contact with the joy and mystery of the Incarnation. Merry Christmas!