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The 12 Days of Christmas and Christmastide: A Rich Catholic Tradition

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Photograph by Carmel Bennett

Christmas Decorations, photographed by Carmel Bennett

Growing up, I loved Christmas so much. It wasn't even the gifts (although that certainly played a part), but the lights, the music, the general magical feeling in the air. I also loved the celebration of Christ's birth. Being evangelical Protestant, our family didn't embrace the fullness of the Christmas religious tradition, but each year we did several meaningful activities (such as putting up a Nativity scene, the advent wreath, reading of the Christmas story). The suspenseful joy of Christmas Eve led to the feasting of Christmas Day and the celebration of the birth of the Messiah and Lord. But, on December 26th, it inevitably happened each and every year: post-Christmas letdown. After December 25th, it seemed like everything ended. Sure, the tree and the decorations stayed up a few more days, but the excitement, the sense of joy, and above all, the feasting, were over. I always wanted the feasting of Christmas to last longer, completely unaware that in the Catholic tradition it did: the festive "Twelve Days," (this has been somewhat downplayed however in the USA and other Episcopal Conferences who have decided to move Epiphany to a Sunday between January 2nd and 8th) the octave of Christmas, and the whole season of Christmas!

Just as the hopeful and quietly expectant mood of Advent has been discarded in large segments of Christianity, so too has the feasting and joy during the full Christmas season. Even among Christians, Christmas too often has become an isolated feast day, cut off from its place in the Church year, especially Advent, Epiphany, and the Baptism of our Lord. I remember in the year 2000 when I first discovered Christmastide (through Anglicanism) and integrated it into my life (especially my devotional life). It was revolutionary. I sang the carols for a longer time; I read the Scriptures associated with Christmas and the Incarnation for more than just one day; I lived the joy of the birth of our God and Savior Jesus Christ for the whole season. Instead of one isolated day, the joy and festival spirit of Christmas lasted the full season the Church intended. Then, I noticed something incredible. I discovered that by the end of Christmastide, I was ready to move along. There was no more letdown.

During the Twelve Days of Christmas and Christmastide the Church also celebrates other major holy days including those of St. Stephen, St. John, the Holy Innocents and, on the first Sunday after Christmas, the Holy Family. Stephen and the Innocents were martyred for their faith and St. John suffered for his. The Holy Family was eventually driven from their homeland into Egypt. These feasts stand in the midst of the season of the Incarnation to remind us that the Incarnation is about more than just the birth of the Christ Child: it is also about the suffering and death of him who is also our Savior. And, as his followers, the Christian life is much more than the celebrations associated with Christmas: it is living for our Lord in such a radical way that we may be asked to give completely of ourselves: even, like St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents, our lives.

I know many readers of this page already celebrate the Christmas season, by observing many Christmas customs, from listening to Christmas music or putting up a Christmas Tree. and have done so much longer than I. I highly commend you for doing so. For those who currently do not, let me encourage you to start this Christmas season. From December 25th through the Baptism of our Lord, keep the joy of Christmas in your hearts, your lives, and your prayers. I think you'll find, like I did, that God will richly bless you throughout. And then, celebrate Ordinary Time and continue from there to Lent, Holy Week, Easter and beyond. Enter into the fullness of the Church year, which is ultimately an entering into the fullness of the life of Christ and the mystery of his Incarnation. Merry Christmas from all of us at Ancient and Future Catholics!

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Christmas
Christmas Prayers
Advent
Epiphany

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