The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Reflecting on Chris Marchand’s talk about Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas on the podcast

The earliest Christians appear only to have celebrated Christ’s Resurrection (at Passover in the Spring) and his Epiphany (on 6 January). When the 25 December was designated as a celebration of Christ’s birth (presumably to “Christianise” the existing Sol Invictus festival in the Roman Empire under Constantine), a 12 day Christmas period was established.

That season is a liminal space between the old and the new years that has spawned a variety of traditions with two recurring themes: rest and reversal. The first theme is easily forgotten in the busy-ness and business around the festivities, in the face of which we might see the twelve days as a call to take an extended Sabbath. The Sabbath is not just about taking a break; it’s a declaration of trust and allegiance to God in a world that seeks to define our worth by the work we do and the possessions we have. In that sense, Christmas should be a rebellion against the prevailing powers.

Which leads us into the second theme: reversal. Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” we are reminded of the popularity of a period of “misrule” in feudal Europe and Carribean carnivals in which the normal order of things is turned on its head: serfs assume the airs of their lords, slaves parade around like their masters, women dress as men, and so on. It has been suggested that this mockery provided a social pressure valve that prevented oppression from boiling over into revolution during the rest of the year.

And yet when Jesus’ mother bursts into song over Christ’s birth, she declares: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour … He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46-55) Christmas should be the time when we remember that in his incarnation, Christ came not to mockingly prop up the systems of this world but to turn them on their head – for real, and forever.

Photo by Kai Wenzel on Unsplash