Christmas Day has come and gone but the party carries on for those of us who abide by the notion that Christmas lasts twelve days. Yes, like the song, but no, the actual days have little to do with fowl. In Jane Austen’s time, Christmas celebrations reached their climax on Twelfth Night (January 5th in the Church of England), when gifts were exchanged and elaborate parties thrown. Over the centuries, the significance of this special time of year has been lost for most of us outside of the very observant, but vestiges of these traditions remain. When I was living in Ireland in the early 90s, I was introduced to the idea of leaving the Christmas tree up until the 6th. It was the first time I realized there really were twelve days of Christmas, but the notion has thrilled me ever since (if nothing else, it gives me a good excuse to enjoy the tree a little bit longer).
So what are the twelve days? Let’s explore each one.
Day One: Christmas Day! Celebrating the birth of Jesus. So far, pretty straight forward.
Day Two: St. Stephan’s Day. Also known as Boxing Day in the UK, it was traditionally the time to give gifts to the poor and to those who worked for you. Some tie this tradition to the story of Good King Wenceslas (my absolute favorite Christmas carol), which takes place “on the feast of Stephen.”
Day Three: Feast of St. John the Apostle. It’s also my little boy’s birthday (he turned one yesterday). Traditionally, priests would do a special blessing over wine on the 27th, so that parishioners could drink to “St. John’s Love.” It is said that he once drank poisoned wine and survived due to his having blessed it.
Day Four: Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. I hate this story of King Herod killing all the baby boys under aged two in Bethlehem in an attempt to target Jesus. It’s so painful. Whether true or not (and there is a great deal of debate about it), cultures throughout the world commemorate the occasion with child-centric celebrations. In Europe, it used to be called the Feast of Fools, a day on which children would take over the responsibilities of their elders, particularly important clerical roles like Bishop, until the practice was condemned by the Counsel of Basel in 1431. The day is perhaps best known in popular culture for the haunting Coventry Carol, composed in the 16th century. You can listen to it here:
Day Five: Feast of St. Thomas Becket. December 29th is the actual anniversary of the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s martyrdom in 1170.
Day Six: Feast of St. Egwin of Worcester. Not a name with which most are familiar. The 7th century bishop was the descendant of Mercian kings and founded Evesham Abbey. He died of natural causes on December 30th.
Day Seven: New Year’s Eve is also St. Sylvester’s feast day. He was Pope from 314 to 335 AD. He is said to have baptized Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, and cured him of leprosy. In German speaking regions (like where I live in Switzerland), New Year’s Eve is still called Silvesternacht.
Day Eight: One of many Marian feast days throughout the year, January 1st is known as the Solemnity of Mary, Holy Mother of God. As this celebration is focused on her aspect as a mother, it’s a great time to call yours wish her very special New Year.
Day Nine: The Feasts of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen. Both were important 4th century christians, and along with Gregory of Nyssa they are known as the Cappadocian Fathers. However, St. Basil is the big star of the show, particularly in the Greek Orthodox church, where his feast is celebrated on New Year’s Day with parties, dancing, bond fires, gift giving, and St. Basil’s Cake, or Vasilopita. This tradition is much like a Twelfth Night Cake, which we will get to shortly.
Day Ten: Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This commemorates Jesus’ official naming in synagogue, a tradition still practiced in Jewish communities today.
Day Eleven: Feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native born American to be canonized by the Catholic Church. I’m having trouble finding out whose feast day this was before she was canonized in 1975. Can anyone help me out with this one? There are a number of other saints commemorated this day, but I do not know who was traditionally honored as part of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Day Twelve: Epiphany Eve or Twelfth Night. Also the Feast of St. John Neumann, the first Bishop in the United States to be canonized. Twelfth Night celebrations have a rich history in England, when the wassail flowed liberally and a king and queen of the festivities were chosen through the eating of Twelfth Night or King Cake. A pea (or coin) and a bean were baked inside. The woman who found the pea was queen while the bean-finding man became king. I really like this video of a traditional Twelfth Night cake recipe from the 18th Century Cooking gents.