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What Happened to the Twelve Days of Christmas Tradition?

Monday 09 January 2017 at 9:28 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 5, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Tomorrow is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, which, according to the reckonings of some Christian churches is the last day of Christmas. It is also known as Epiphany, which celebrates the coming of the Wise Men. Tomorrow, by such reckoning, is Epiphany, the last day of Christmas.

            There are about a half dozen Christian denominations who do not celebrate Christmas, or, who celebrate it in a minor way. These are Protestants, many Calvinists, who argue that celebrating Christmas is not commanded in the Bible, and Christ’s birth was not observed by the Apostles. Some also argue that there are too many pagan elements that have been pulled into Christmas celebrations. For many years, Southern Baptists did not hold services on Christmas Day (unless it fell on Sunday), but in more recent years, they seem to have shifted to a wider celebration of Christmas. For the Eastern Orthodox churches, Christmas is more important than Easter as a Holy Day.

            In those churches where there is no emphasis on Christmas, you’re not going to find anyone observing the TWELVE days of Christmas. Those churches shy away from Christmas, because they consider it “Christ-Mass,” which is essentially, in their view, a Roman Catholic observance. The churches evolving directly out of the Catholic Church do place much emphasis on Christmas as a festival and usually do observe the Twelve Days.

            The Church of England under Henry VIII, and later, Elizabeth I and James I, was nominally “Protestant,” but totally Catholic in its observances and festivals. With Martin Luther having been a Catholic priest, the Lutheran Church avidly celebrated Christmas with similar traditions as Catholics, though, in word, if not in action, they recognized Easter as the more important of the two Festivals. Celebrating each of the twelve days of Christmas was much more enthusiastically celebrated by Anglicans than Lutherans.

            England’s enthusiasm for all twelve days of Christmas seems to have started with Queen Elizabeth I, who loved Christmas and the Christmas season (not necessarily for the right reasons), and observed each of the days with special, lavish celebrations, -- masked balls, operas, dramatic performances, etc., in the palace. She loved to party, but she also loved the Church. The non-royals had their Christmastide dances, musicals, etc., too, and, many theatres, like the Globe, were packed at this time of year.

            However, the Puritans, those extreme Protestants who were very numerous in London, were not happy with such secular celebrations of Christ’s birth, considering them activities sponsored by Satan. Not just at Christmas, but all year long, they tried to get the theatres closed down. What saved the twelve days of celebrations was the love of the people for their Queen, and her love for the people. She was able to get along with the Puritans, and achieved a compromise between the Church of England way and the Puritan way.

            This was not true of King James I, who followed her, because he, as Head of the Anglican Church, had intense squabbles with the Puritans. He didn’t like Catholics either, but the Church of England continued to celebrate the Festivals pretty much as the Catholics did, with High Church Masses, etc. The fact that he was an incredible theologian and deeply spiritual Christian kept his relationship with the Puritans from being dangerously contentious. Fluent in Greek, he himself was very active in the translation of the King James Bible.

            Martin Luther loved Christmas celebrations, too, including those in the home; in fact, he is believed by Lutherans to have “invented” the Christmas tree. His Christmas celebrations, both inside and outside the church, were deeply spiritual, placing candles on the Christmas tree to symbolize angels and roses as symbols of Christ. Like James I, he, too, was fluent in Greek and knowledgeable in Hebrew, and translated the Bible into German a number of years before King James spearheaded his English translation. For both the Church of England and the Lutheran Church, Christmas was a time of great joy and celebration as it was in the Catholic Church. All twelve days!

            In today’s world, in many places, including the United States, folks no longer celebrate the twelve days of Christmas, starting with Christmas Day and ending with Epiphany. It’s kind of strange in a way that contemporary society no longer observes those twelve days, but, instead, start their celebrations the day after Halloween, or the day after Thanksgiving, -- which brings them a month, or over a month’s worth of observances rather than twelve days. And the longer it has gotten, the less spiritual and more secular Christmastide has become.

            Well, in my reckoning, it ends tomorrow. So have a joyful, wonderful, spiritual Twelfth Day of Christmas tomorrow! And may the joy last the rest of the new year!


Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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