And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Matthew 2:9-11
I remember just a couple of months ago, shortly after Halloween, when the stores changed their displays and the season of Christmas! began. What has been sadly referred to as “Christmas creep” in our local groceries, shops, and restaurants has actually been a part of Christian observance for decades. Just this weekend I had a friend express, “Well, I’m actually glad it’s over, now all that’s left is to take down the lights.” In the past several days, Jenny and I walked two neighborhoods, and that sentiment is obvious by the number of houses recently stripped of their twinkling Christmas cheer—a full week before Epiphany! It seems secular and Christian alike have lost track of the rhythm of the season, for the Christmas season actually starts on Christmas Day itself.
As we look back, we know that the four weeks preceding Christmas are a season unto themselves: not Christmas, but Advent, which begins, just for reference, four weeks after the Sunday closest to All Saints’ Day, November 1st. Advent lasts for four weeks and ends on December 24th, Christmas Eve. Thus begins the true season of Christmas—Christ’s birth—on December 25th. This begins Day One of what we understand as “Christmas,” even though schools go back, banks and post offices open, and stores never close.
The 12 days of Christmas is the period in Christian theology that marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, whom we usually represent as “Three Kings,” but in fact were “Wise Men” of an unknown number. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and runs through January 6 (Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings’ Day).
The Feast of the Epiphany is the proclamation that the Christ, who is the incarnate God, the Creator of the universe who was born into a Hebrew family to fulfill the Hebrew prophesies, is also the Savior of the World who came for all people. The Epiphany story, which is found in the Gospel of Matthew, is the story of how this truth was recognized first, not by the Jews, but by the Gentiles. The witness of the Magi, who sacrificed several years of their life traveling on a dangerous journey and willfully humbled themselves as they pay[ed] him homage,” is a form of prefiguring of Jesus’ own journey and sacrifice as “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” for the Gentile world they represented (Philippians 2:8b).
The story of Epiphany confirms that God is reaching out to people of all traditions and faiths across the world and drawing them to himself. The Magi were led to recognize Jesus as the Messiah through their own traditions but confirmed it by God in their own faith journey. The story of the Magi is so important to God’s witness of Divine Love that the Feast of the Epiphany marks the twelfth and final day of the Season of Christmas.
So, the flow of the seasons should be apparent to Christians who observe the liturgical calendar: Advent to Christmas, Christmas to Epiphany. But what of our poor secular brethren? Is there no help for them? I include below (and apologize in advance for getting the tune stuck in your head!) a little ditty that everyone knows—Christian and secular alike. This song is all about the season of Christmas, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” As usual, I believe we are called to seek a deeper meaning and understanding.
Christian Meaning Behind the 12 Days of Christmas
Originally a poem written by church clerics, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was transformed into a carol at a time when celebrating the twelve days of Christmas was one of the most important holiday customs. By understanding the meaning, the clerics chose the twelve days as wrapping for their poem, the full impact of the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas can be understood.
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... a partridge in a pear tree.
The partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on the first day of Christmas. Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge, the only bird that will die to protect its young.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... two turtledoves.
These twin birds represent the Old and New Testaments. Thus, in this gift, the singer finds the complete story of Judeo-Christian faith and God’s plan for the world. The doves are the biblical roadmap that is available to everyone.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... three French hens.
These birds represent faith, hope, and love. This gift hearkens back to 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter written by the apostle Paul.
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... four calling birds.
One of the easiest facets of the song’s code to figure out, these fowl are the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... five gold rings.
The gift of the rings represents the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch.
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... six geese a-laying.
These lyrics can be traced back to the first story found in the Bible. Each egg is a day in creation, a time when the world was “hatched” or formed by God.
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me... seven swans a-swimming.
It would take someone quite familiar with the Bible to identify this gift. Hidden in the code are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. As swans are one of the most beautiful and graceful creatures on earth, they would seem to be a perfect symbol for spiritual gifts.
On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... eight maids a-milking.
As Christ came to save even the lowest of the low, this gift represents the ones who would receive his word and accept his grace. Being a milkmaid was about the worst job one could have in England during this period; this code conveyed that Jesus cared as much about servants as he did those of royal blood. The eight who were blessed included the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... nine ladies dancing.
These nine dancers were really the gifts known as the fruit of the Spirit. The fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me... ten lords a-leaping.
This is probably the easiest gift to understand. As lords were judges and in charge of the law, this code for the Ten Commandments was straightforward to Christians.
On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... eleven pipers piping.
This is almost a trick question, as most think of the disciples in terms of a dozen. But when Judas betrayed Jesus and committed suicide, there were only eleven men who carried out the gospel message.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... twelve drummers drumming.
The final gift is tied directly to the Church. The drummers are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
Let us embrace the 12 days in new ways. Let the world have its 55 days (Halloween to Christmas), or its 31 (Thanksgiving to Christmas). We will enjoy the best of them in only 12—just like the song says! For our true love gave to me, and to thee—eternally!
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†