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The Twelve Days of Christmas

We’ve been celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas at our house, with enthusiasm – or at least dedication – for more than twenty years. Hard to believe.

In the beginning I was an eager and well-intentioned, but mostly uninformed young Baptist. I gave my husband (who was still my fiancée that first year) 12 gifts in the days leading up to December 25. The next year at Christmas, when I was about to begin seminary, and we had been married for a few months, we shifted the tradition to the days after Christmas. We were attending a much more liturgically-minded congregation. And we were learning more about this and other church year traditions.

We discovered that the Twelve Days of Christmas are more properly celebrated from Christmas to Epiphany. Even still there is some variation on the exact days of the brief season. For some it lasts from Christmas day (December 25) to the “Twelfth Night” on January 5th, with Epiphany on January 6. For others it begins on December 26th and continues until January 6th. At our house we tend to follow the latter rule.

Over the years the Twelve days of Christmas have brought things nearly as strange as the popular song itself: trail mix, kitchen utinsils, oven mitts, candles (lots of candles), socks, candy, picture frames, scarves and hats, games and toys, and on and on the list goes.  We have a running  joke that my husband is no longer allowed to buy emery boards for me as a Twelve Days gift. I have a life-time supply from years past. Some years we limited our gifts to under $2.00. Each, not total. Other years we put other challenges into the mix. For instance one year I increased the number of items to go with each day – so by the end I was giving something like a 10-pack of handkerchiefs, 11 candy canes, and a dozen golf balls.

Mostly for us it is a fun way (and hence a number of running jokes) to continue celebrating the season with small tokens of appreciation, humor, and creativity. You have to really reach for ideas some years. Just ask my husband, and he’ll likely roll his eyes in mock exasperation. But he also takes it as a challenge to fulfill the task and have some fun.

The possibilities for what the song lyrics mean, are matters of tradition, legend, and adaptation. It is fun to make them into a heuristic for teaching some basic facts about Christian history. (The links can fill you in if you’re interested.) Most of all it is a time for continuing to practice the coming of love into the world. Which means all the silly songs and small gifts are not ends in themselves, but ways we point beyond the ordinary time to a sacred time when God comes to live among us, to pitch a tent and settle into the neighborhood.

Now each day and each moment are both. Ordinary and sacred. But it seems we need seasons to notice how God is present in particular ways. After the long season of “ordinary time” we need a season of advent, so that we might attend to God’s arrival in our lives. And then we have nearly two weeks of just plain celebration here in the dead of winter. Consider it a gift indeed to have freedom for such celebrations. They sound a lot like a luxury to most of the world. And despite the frivolity and humor of this tradition, I try not to take that too lightly.

God is present in it all. That seems to be what Jesus was trying to say.

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