For most of us, Christmas ends on Dec. 25, after we’ve unwrapped gifts, fulfilled our family traditions — and prepared to return to normal life. But what most people don’t celebrate is the 12 days of Christmas — and no, not the song.
Christmas is not just a day but a season. It’s a way of ushering in the new year and celebrating the birth of Jesus, among other things.
“We hung an ornament a day and gave a gift each day — and planned a service project for the 12th day.”
The 12 days of Christmas began as a celebration in the Middle Ages but have dwindled over the years. This celebration begins on Christmas Day and follows until Jan. 5, which is known as Epiphany Eve in many Christian traditions. The Epiphany is a time to celebrate the visit of the three kings to Jesus at his birth.
So why 12 days — and why consider prolonging the Christmas celebrations?
Those 12 days, beginning with Christmas, are days to honor Jesus’ birth and the subsequent events that occurred. It’s no secret that work holiday parties, Santa Claus, and party-hopping can cloud the meaning of Christmas.
These events are valuable and are a great time for families and friends to spend together — but what if we took it a bit further?
To celebrate these days of Christmas means taking time to honor those who have come after Jesus, making a difference in his name. Kathryn Brown of Charlotte, North Carolina, describes her family’s traditions: “We hung an ornament a day and gave a gift each day — Christmas Day was basically just stockings — and planned a service project for the 12th day.”
This thought process of choosing the Epiphany to serve others and outwardly celebrate the gift of Jesus is not something all of us embrace, but is certainly a tradition with considering.
Giving a gift each day takes time, planning, and effort — but it’s a great way to lead up to the Epiphany, the time of revelation of what Jesus’ coming meant for the world. Most people begin Christmas shopping and celebrating around Thanksgiving or toward the beginning of December — and wrap it up by New Year’s Day. In more traditional cultures of Christianity, however, this is just the opposite of their celebratory schedule.
In a more Orthodox setting, the festivities begin on Christmas Day; people are very intentional about working up toward the Epiphany. The festivities include daily gifts, and parties and gatherings — not unlike our current Christmas traditions, but they’re stretched out over a longer period of time.
Helms Jarrell and her community at Queen City Family Tree in Charlotte host an Epiphany party each year to celebrate and acknowledge the long list of saints and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Like in traditional times, this party is marked by a feast and time spent with loved ones and those within their community. It is a way of saying that Christmas is not just about one day of the year but about a celebration of the entire life of Jesus.
It is still the Christmas season and it’s not too late to incorporate a building up to the Epiphany into your traditions. Just like with Christmas, the gifts are just an added bonus and not a necessity. What is necessary, though, is that we continue to bask in the light of the true meaning of Christmas, of the life of Jesus, and the lives of those who served in the centuries after his death, even to their own deaths in some cases.