The 12 days of Christmas.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 December

Tomorrow’s the first day of Christmas. Happy Christmas!

After which there are 11 more days of it. 26 December—which is also Boxing Day and St. Stephen’s Day—tends to get called “the day after Christmas,” but it’s not. It’s the second day of Christmas.

The Sunday after Christmas (and in many years, including 2021, two Sundays after Christmas) is still Christmas. So I go to church and wish people a happy Christmas. And they look at me funny, till I remind them, “Christmas is 12 days, y’know. Like the song.”

Ah, the song. They sing it, but it never clicks what they’re singing about.

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Three french hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Four calling birds, three french hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

We’re on the fourth day and that’s 20 frickin’ birds. There will be plenty more, what with the swans a-swimming and geese a-laying. Dude was weird for birds. But I digress.

There are 12 days of Christmas. But our culture focuses on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day… and we’re done. Department store policy is to remove the Christmas merchandise on 26 December, and start putting up New Year’s and St. Valentine’s Day stuff. (If the Christmas stuff is already sold out, fill ’em with New Year’s stuff now.) So the stores grant us two days of Christmas; no more.

Really, many people can’t abide any more days of Christmas than that. When I remind people it’s 12 days, the response is seldom surprise, recognition, or pleasure. It’s tightly controlled rage. Who the [expletive noun] added 11 more days to this [expletive adjective] holiday? They want it done already.

I understand this. If the focus of Christmas isn’t Christ, but instead all the Christian-adjacent cultural traditions we’re forced to practice this time of year, Christmas sucks. Hard. Especially since Mammonists don’t bother to be like Jesus, and practice kindness and generosity. For them Christmas is about being a dick to any clerk who wishes ’em a “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I don’t blame people for hating that behavior. Really, Christians should hate it. It’s works of the flesh, y’know.

Christmas, the feast of Christ Jesus’s nativity (from whence non-English speakers get their names for Christmas, like Navidad and Noël and Natale) begins 25 December and ends 5 January. What are we to do these other 11 days? Same as we were supposed to do Christmas Day: Remember Jesus. Meditate on his first coming; look forward to his second coming. And rejoice; these are feast days, so the idea is to actually enjoy yourself, and have a good time with loved ones. Eat good food. Hang out. Relax. Or, if you actually like to shop, go right ahead; but if you don’t, by all means don’t.

It’s a holiday. Take a holiday.

No, we didn’t steal it from the pagans.

The day after the 12th day of Christmas, 6 January, is Epiphany, the day we Christians celebrate finding out God became human. It’s meant to be on the date Jesus was baptized, and since ancient Christians observed it by the late 100s Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.21.45 it’s entirely possible they knew the date. It’s also possible it’s based on guesswork. Some saint figured the Jordan River is in flood in early January, so that’d ensure there was enough water at Al-Maghtas where Jesus was baptized. (“Bethabara beyond Jordan,” KJV; “Bethany on the other side of the Jordan,” NIV; it’s at John 1.28.) Hence Christians began to celebrate 6 January as the day Jesus revealed himself to John the baptist and the world.

But Epiphany expanded to celebrate all Jesus’s childhood: His birth, the visit of the magi, that time he taught in temple… everything from when Gabriel announced his birth to Mary, up to the wedding at Cana where he performed his first miracle. By the late 300s, Epiphany had become Jesus’s de facto birthday celebration.

And many Christians began observing the 12 days before Epiphany. Sorta like Americans start shopping for Christmas after our Thanksgiving Day, and turn this into “the Christmas season.” Well, that became Jesus’s birthday season.

Other early Christians objected. ’Cause birthdays in the Roman Empire were typically celebrated with drunken orgies. I don’t care what the First Church of the Shag Carpeting claims; having sloppy sex with a dozen people is not at all the proper way to honor Jesus. Of course ancient Christians weren’t gonna throw an orgy any more than today’s Christians have strippers at their bachelor parties. (Well… most of today’s Christians.) But they were dead set on partying, and when people get that way it’s awfully hard to stop ’em.

So yeah, the 12 days before Epiphany evolved into Christmas.

Well, 25 December is two days after the winter solstice, and every culture observes the winter solstice in one way or another. Some religions make a thing of it. Hence pagans and nontheists leapt to the conclusion, and love to spread the rumor, we Christians stole the holiday from Greco-Roman or Germanic pagan religions. Supposedly we Christianized the Roman solstice holiday Saturnalia. Even some Christians buy this story. (No surprise; we don’t know our own history.) True, we totally have this bad habit of creating crummy Christian versions of secular stuff. But Epiphany corresponds to no other pagan holiday. Christmas wasn’t built on the winter solstice; it was built backwards from Epiphany. And it wasn’t adjusted to land on the solstice; there aren’t 14 days of Christmas. Twelve, after all, is God’s favorite number.

Pagan stuff, including Germanic myths about elves and reindeer, did get mixed up with Christmas—after the fact. Father Christmas got invented, and was blended together with St. Nicholas myths. Poets, children’s authors, shopkeepers, the makers of poorly-written TV stop-motion specials, and pop singers, added a lot to the Santa and Frosty and Rudolph stories. So much so, one can now have a crummy pagan version of Christmas, and never have to bring up Jesus whatsoever.

Which leads us to the backlash.

The ban on Christmas.

Spiced wine, decorated trees, yule logs, jingle bells, mistletoe, fruitcake, candy canes, paper crowns, elves, sleighs and reindeer, fireworks, drunken uncles, undead snowmen, and so forth: All of ’em are local customs which got tacked onto Christmas over the centuries. A whole lot of ’em in the 20th century, as pagans wanted to celebrate Christmas but didn’t care for it being all religious.

Because people overdo it on all the junk which has nothing to do with Christ, many a Christian objected. (Sound familiar?) In the past, before there was any separation of church and state, some Christians in political leadership actually banned the practices they considered too pagan. Early Calvinists and Puritans even banned Christmas altogether: Way too pagan, way too sinful—and it’s not in the bible anyway. Away with it!

Here’s a fun fact which regularly suprised my U.S. history students. During the American Revolution in 1776, Gen. George Washington’s army crossed the Delaware River to New Jersey, and took the Hessian troops by surprise in the Battle of Trenton, defeating them easily. How’d he do it? The Hessians celebrated Christmas… and the Americans didn’t. Washington attacked the night after the first day of Christmas, taking advantage of the fact Hessians would be super drunk from all the celebrating.

“Wait, Americans didn’t celebrate Christmas?” Nope. Didn’t till the 1830s. By then there were finally enough Roman Catholics in the country who did celebrate Christmas, and shopkeepers decided to make hay out of the holiday. As they have since.

Most early American and British attitudes about Christmas were reflected by Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. Like Scrooge, they insisted Christmas was a humbug—a fake-pious excuse to take the day off from work and get pissed drunk. It had nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus. (Not that Scrooge had anything to do with Jesus either.) Dickens saw the potential in the day. Merchants too. Together they got Americans to change our tune. Perhaps a little too much.

Christians worldwide have adopted the attitude of Paul: Pagan gods aren’t real gods, and if it doesn’t violate your conscience to practice local customs, and do them as to the One True God, it’s no problem. Go ahead and tell Santa stories, exchange presents, and eat a crazy number of cookies.

I know; you probably do share Jesus at Christmastime. Or try to.

  • You wish people a Merry Christmas instead of the generic Happy Holidays. Even when they wished you a Happy Holidays first. And you weren’t a jerk about it.
  • You put a nativity crèche on the lawn. Somewhere. The inflatable Santa might be bigger, but the crèche is front and center.
  • Your Christmas cards have bible verses and pictures of the Holy Family. Or angels or shepherds or magi or the star of Bethlehem. Something biblical.
  • You invite people to your church’s Christmas pageant or candlelight service or midnight Mass. And for once, they actually go!
  • You emphasize the Christmas carols about Christ, instead of the songs about the secular trinity of Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Frosty. (Seriously, if we saw a snowman come to life, we’d do an exorcism, not write a song about it.)
  • You remind everyone within earshot (or at least those who follow you on Twitter) how Jesus is the reason for the season.

How much more Christian can we be?

But y’see, pagans expect all the Christian things to happen. They’re fully aware this is a religious holiday. They know the Christmas story; they watch it every year on A Charlie Brown Christmas, and some of ’em even know by heart the bit where Linus gets up and recites Luke 2.8-14 KJV and concludes, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” They know.

And don’t care.

In their minds, yeah Jesus is historical, but a lot of the Jesus stories are as mythological as flying reindeer. Doesn’t faze them. They don’t care about God fulfilling his promises to save Israel and the world. They just want an excuse to party, and Jesus’s birthday is as good as any.

So if we really wanna share Jesus, we gotta bear this in mind. Just because pagans are receptive to Christmas, even a super-Christian-style Christmas, doesn’t automatically mean they’re receptive to Christ. That’s just how hard a nut they are to crack.

Does it mean we give up hope? Absolutely not. We just give up what doesn’t work. Making Christmas as transparently Christian as possible doesn’t work, and it’s for one really simple reason: It’s passive. We aren’t actively sharing Jesus with people. We’re sharing Christmas, but we’re sharing Jesus passively. We’re not sharing God’s kingdom; we’re telling people something they consider an old bedtime story… and wonder why it puts them to sleep.

Use the Christmas story to start the conversation. Then share how Jesus grew up, proclaimed the kingdom, saved the world, and invites all of us to join him. That’s what makes Christmas so great. All 12 days of it.