Keeping Christmas -- All Twelve Days

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree…

As we gather around our Christmas trees to celebrate Christmas, few of us think of Christmas Day as a beginning. For most families Christmas is the culmination, the climax, of weeks of planning, shopping, and anticipation. Not many are even aware that Christmas is but the first day of the twelve-day season referred to in the familiar song.

Why a Season?

Ever since the Council of Tours met in 567 and proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive time, the church officially has observed both an Advent season for preparation and a Christmas season for the celebration of our Lord's nativity. Unfortunately much of the richness of these religious seasons was muted in the Reformation.

The Reformers, returning from the visual to the Word, from the elaborate ritual to the simple service, favored sparse services of sermon and prayer. As a result, the festivals of Advent and Epiphany, admittedly a mix of biblical stories and allegorical traditions, were suppressed in Reformed churches. However, in spite of the church's stand, people weren't willing to give up some of their delightful Christmas customs. As a result, Advent and Christmas became secularized—times of good-natured reveling rather than times of spiritual celebration.

During the last twenty years many Reformed Christians have tried to recapture the spiritual festivals of the Christian year. Recognizing how the church year dramatizes the biblical story of what Christ has done for the salvation of all people, Christians have been trying to recover some of the richness of these religious seasons and festivals. They've discovered that the church year forms an annual curriculum that tells the story of our faith: those who understand it understand the basics of the gospel.

The Christian church year, therefore, is a natural focus for family worship and tradition. Pollster George Gallup, Jr., has identified Christian nurture at home as the sharpest difference between churched and unchurched Americans. Repeated traditions, it seems, help all of us know and remember who we are, developing our identity as God's children. And celebration of the themes and seasons of the church year helps families express their faith. As a result, many Christian families now celebrate Advent in their homes. But, probably due to lack of information, these same families often do little or nothing to celebrate the season of Christmas.

Advent is a time in which we anticipate and prepare to celebrate all of the comings of God: at Bethlehem, into our lives each day, and again at the end of time. Advent is a time of making ready the way of the Lord, a time for waiting and watching, a time of anticipation. What many people don't stop to consider is that there is a difference between preparation and celebration. If our houses are decorated and trees put up the week after Thanksgiving, if we sing "Joy to the World" on the first Sunday of Advent, if the Christmas cookies have all been eaten and the holiday parties held before mid-December, it is hardly surprising that we are sick of celebrating by December twenty-sixth.

Too much too soon lessens the experience of the real feast and leads to "post-holiday blues." On the other hand, if we have used Advent as a time of anticipation; a time for family prayer and Bible reading; a time of preparing for the celebration by baking, shopping, wrapping, and caring—then instead of being worn out by too premature a celebration, we will be ready for a season of festivity.

Celebrate the Season

What can families do to celebrate the Christmas season that begins on Christmas Day? That depends on what we've done during Advent. If the decorations and the tree have just recently come out, their presence will be welcome for a few weeks. If we have sought out music appropriate to Advent, Christmas music will now gladden our hearts. If we have restrained ourselves from ripping off all of the wrappings at once, gift-giving can continue; some families I know open one small gift on each of the twelve days of Christmas.

Family Devotions. Because Christmas is a light, happy season, simple, joyous observance is most appropriate. For each day's mealtime devotions choose a short portion of the Christmas story and select a carol that expands its meaning. For example:

Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to the town of Bethlehem in Judea; the birthplace of King David.

(Luke 2:4a TEV)
Sing: "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

Joseph went [to Bethlehem] because he was a descendant of David. He went to register with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. (Luke2:4b-5TEV)

Sing: 'To, How a Rose E'er Blooming"

Mary was pregnant, and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger…

Sing: "Away in a Manger"

Special Books. Families with children can use this time to read special books about Christmas. Build a treasured collection year by year and bring it out to be especially enjoyed during the twelve days. Include a mixture of serious and whimsical books that delight both adults and children. We have enjoyed the following:

General Titles

Jesus Is Born. Augsburg, 1977. A good first book.
The First Christinas by Tomie dePaola. Putnam, 1984. A popup book.
Santa's Favorite Story by Aoki and Gantschev. Neugebauer Press, 1982.
Peter Spiers Christmas! Doubleday, 1983.
The Family Christmas Tree Book by Tomie dePaola. Holiday House, 1980.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. Random, 1957
Martin the Cobbler. Winston, 1982.

Other Customs

Nine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico by Marie Hall Ets. Viking, 1959.
The Legend of Old Befana: An Italian Christmas Story by Tomie dePaola. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

Older Readers

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Harper & Row, 1972.
The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L'Engle. Shaw, 1984.

Illustrated Carols and Songs

Jack Kent's Twelve Days of Christmas. Parents', 1973.
Twelve Days of Christmas by Sophie Widham, Putnam, 1986. A lift-the-flap book.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas by Tracey Campbell Pearson. Dial, 1983.
The Friendly Beasts by Tomie dePaola. Putnam, 1981.
Silent Night by Susan Jeffers. Dutton, 1984.

Hospitality. Since the twelve days of Christmas are less hectic than Advent, they provide an ideal time for entertaining. Families can plan gatherings for a mix of ages rather than adults-only parties. One custom, borrowed from the British, is to invite several families (including people who may be alone or lonely) over on Boxing Day, the twenty-sixth of December. (Boxing Day, a British National Holiday, takes its name from church alms boxes that traditionally were opened on that day and distributed to the needy.) Plan a simple buffet and a variety of games that appeal to all ages.

Twelfth Night

The twelve days of Christmas traditionally end with the celebration of the eve of Epiphany on Twelfth Night, January fifth. The church generally begins its feasts on the eve of the day: e.g., Christmas Eve, Easter Vigil.) Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of Jesus as the Savior of the whole world as first shown by the coming of the magi. Twelfth Night is the time to remove the festive decorations, leaving just the lights on the tree (for one final evening) to emphasize the Epiphany theme of Jesus as the Light of the World.

Many customs can enrich Twelfth Night festivities. As part of family worship consider singing "As with Gladness Men of Old" and reading Matthew 5: 14-16:

You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead he puts it on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house.

[Here each person may light a personal candle, holding it high and saying:]

In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven. (TEV)

Another custom focuses on the Epiphany cake. Baked into an Epiphany cake are three hidden coins, nuts, or beans. A bundt pan gives the cake a crown shape; bright orange, red, and yellow gumdrops will serve as the jewels that adorn it. You may want to give crowns to those who find the objects hidden in the cake, making them "kings" or "queens" for the evening. They can "rule" over the party, if you have one. Or they can be relieved of usual chores or receive a special privilege. If you follow the Austrian custom of burning incense (an ancient symbol for prayer) to "welcome the three kings," the "king" can lead a procession throughout the house as you ask God to bless your living in various rooms ("that we may have a refreshing sleep" or "family fun around the table"). A well-defined Twelfth Night ends the season on an upbeat note.

Merry Christmas!

Rather than allowing commercial interests to identify the "Christmas Season" as the shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we Christians can live the Christmas season in ways that express our faith. By using the church's Christmas season as a time to explore the meaning of Christ's birth through music, books, and time with family and friends, we will enrich our lives together. Merry Christmas—all twelve days!


Keeping Christmas: Activities and Devotions for the Twelve Days of Christmas by Sandra Sorlien. Augsburg, 1982, $4.95. Prayers, Scripture readings, worship ideas, calendars, activities, crafts, and entertaining suggestions for the Christmas season.

The Gift of Time: Family Celebrations and Activities for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Miller and VanderVeen. Morehouse-Barlow, 1977, $4.95. A wealth of ideas for the three seasons.

A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the foys of Family and Faith Throughout the Christian Year by Evelyn Birge Vitz. Harper & Row, 1985, $16.95. Many recipes and ideas for all the major feasts and festivals of the church year. Includes background, customs, and activities.

The Sugar-Plum Christmas Book: A Book for Christmas and All the Days of the Year by Jean Chapman. Children's Press (library binding), 1977, $19.95. A delightfully illustrated book; a treasury of story, verse, song, and activity.

Carol Myers is moderator of the worship commission of the Reformed Church in America and frequently speaks on family celebration of the church year. The Myers family are members of Hope Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 5 © September 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.