Twelve days of Christmas.

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

And there are 11 more days of it. Tomorrow, 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 2020, 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.

What is with all the birds? 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. Two days of Christmas.

And some of us cannot abide any more than that. When I remind people there are 12 days of Christmas, for some of ’em their response isn’t 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 stuff. 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. The ancient Christians had no idea when figured Jesus got baptized, and based on some loosey-goosey detective work decided it was sometime in early January, probably when the Jordan was in flood. So they began to celebrate it as the day Jesus revealed himself to John the baptist and the world. Clement of Alexandria referred to it by the late 100s. Stromata 1.21.45

We began by celebrating Jesus’s baptism, but Epiphany expanded to celebrate all Jesus’s childhood: His birth, the visit of the magi, when 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.

But 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. 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… many 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.

Pagans and nontheists love to spread the myth we Christians stole the holiday from Greco-Roman pagan religions. Supposedly we Christianized the winter solstice holiday, Saturnalia. Even some Christians buy this story—and no surprise, ’cause we don’t know our own history. (And we do have a really bad habit of creating crummy Christian versions of secular stuff.) But Epiphany was never a pagan holiday. Had nothing to do with any pagan holidays. Same with Christmas and the winter solstice.

Pagan stuff, including Germanic myths about elves and reindeer, did get mixed into Christmas after the fact. Father Christmas got invented and blended together with St. Nicholas myths. Poets, children’s authors, shopkeepers, the makers of poorly-written (but well-animated) TV stop-motion specials, and pop singers added a lot to the Santa and Frosty and Rudolph stories; so much so you 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.

Because many a Christian culture overdid it on all the junk which has nothing to do with Christ (sound familiar?) many a Christian objected. And 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!

In 1776, during the American Revolution, 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. Why? ’Cause 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 too drunk, or hung over, from their celebrations.

This fact regularly surprised my history students: “Americans didn’t celebrate Christmas?” Nope. Didn’t till the 1830s. By then there were finally enough Roman Catholics in America, who did celebrate Christmas, for shopkeepers to try to make hay out of the holiday. Which they did, and have since.

Most early Americans’ (and Brits’) attitudes about Christmas were reflected by Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. Christmas, they insisted, was a humbug, an excuse to take the day off from work and get ’faced. 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 during Christmas. 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.