Christmas Day is just beginning

Most people today are aware of the Christmas song “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

Dec 24, 2014

St. Stephen the Martyr is seen in a mural painted by Lorenzo Sabbatini in this photo taken during the restoration of the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican.

By Daniel Mulhall
Most people today are aware of the Christmas song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Though it has some unknown history, many agree that the song is French in origin and can be traced to the mid-1600s – although it may be older than that. The song recounts the amazing gifts that a person received over the 12 days between Christmas and the feast of the Epiphany.

The words are familiar: “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree” and on through “12 drummers drumming.” It can be argued that its meaning can be very confusing to some.

A popular myth is that this song was used to teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church to English Catholics during 1558-1829, a time of persecution in England when any practice of the Catholic faith could result in a death sentence.

Although this makes a good story, there is no proof to support the claim, but there's plenty of research to suggest otherwise. A better claim is that the song developed as a game used during the festivities that took place during the Christmas season. This is how the song is presented in its earliest known print edition in the children's book “Mirth Without Mischief,” published in 1780.

In the Church’s liturgical calendar, Christmas is a distinct season that begins on Christmas Day (Dec. 25). It lasts until the baptism of the Lord, which is celebrated on the third Sunday after Christmas Day.

The feast of the Epiphany marks the arrival of the Wise Men, or kings (also referred to as the Magi), and it joyfully celebrates the revelation of Christ to the world. Epiphany was traditionally celebrated on Jan. 6, but today it is celebrated on the second Sunday following Christmas Day. The 12 days of Christmas last from Dec. 25 until the evening before the Epiphany, which is referred to as the “12th night.”

While today most Christmas celebrations take place during Advent, in the weeks prior to Christmas, historically Christmas celebrations did not begin until Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day. While gift giving has always been a part of the Christmas season in many countries, Christmas Day was not a major day for gift giving. In fact, in some countries, most gifts were given on Epiphany, to honour the gifts brought to Jesus by the Magi. In some traditions, small gifts were given on Christmas Day, and then larger gifts would be given each day until the Epiphany. This is the tradition we hear about in “The 12 Days of Christmas” song.

Although rarely recognized today, there is much to celebrate, and there is a lot to remember during the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany that makes it a time worth noting and learning about.

After honouring the birth of Christ on Dec. 25, the following day, on the second day of Christmas, we honor St. Stephen, deacon and martyr. The Acts of the Apostles tell how Stephen was selected by the Church for the role of deacon and how Stephen was martyred because he dared proclaim the Gospel in public. On this day, we also honour all of the men and women who faithfully live out their lives in service to the Gospel, whether they are ordained, religious or are lay men or women, whether they are old or young.

Because the Greek word “martyr” means “witness,” we use this day to remember and give thanks for all of the people who have brought us to faith in Christ Jesus, those who have “testified” with their lives that Jesus is saviour and Lord.

On the third day of Christmas we celebrate the gift that the evangelist, St John, gave to the Church. His account of the life and ministry of Jesus reveals him clearly to be the Son of God. While John’s Gospel does not contain stories of Jesus’ birth, his account helps us to best understand who Jesus was and why he came to earth.

On the fourth day of Christmas we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents, those young boys put to death by King Herod in an effort to kill the baby Jesus. On this day, we remember and honour all of those who have suffered and died because of human cruelty and ruthlessness. This is also a day to remember those infants who die before they can be born, either through miscarriage or abortion.

There is so much more to celebrate during the Christmas season. On the sixth day, we celebrate the Holy Family and our families. On the eighth day, we celebrate Mary as the Mother of God and the World Day of Peace, and on the 10th day, we pay tribute to the holy name of Jesus. Finally, on the 12th day, we reflect on Jesus being made known to the world.

Christmas doesn’t end with the shopping season or the opening of presents. There are far more important spiritual gifts to open.

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