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Keeping the Twelve Days of Christmas

Everywhere we go from the end of November right up to Christmas Day, we are bombarded with Christmas music.  And then, just as Christians actually start celebrating the feast, the music stops!  We at FHD are not related to Ebenezer Scrooge--we like Christmas!  But we like it beginning on the eve of December 25th, and continuing for its own very special twelve days.  On this page, we are collecting ideas for keeping the feast.  As with everything else on FHD, we will add to it as new material and new ideas come to us.  This is just a start.

But first, just what are the Twelve Days of Christmas?  Everyone who has ever heard the song that begins, "On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me....," knows that there are twelve days, but do they know when they actually begin and end?  In recent years, the commercialization of the holiday has gone so far as to usurp the twelve days before Christmas and make them into a kind of count-down to the day itself.  On the other hand, in a rather detailed description of Christmas customs, Kathryn Capoccia says that Twelfth Night, that is, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, is January 6th.  If that is correct, then there are actually thirteen days of Christmas (December 25th to January 6th inclusive, not to mention Christmas Eve which adds yet another night to the cycle).  Clearly, there is a bit of a muddle on this point, but here is the way we have sorted it out:  counting Christmas Day itself, there are twelve days from Christmas to January 5th and, logically, these are the Twelve Days of Christmas. January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, the beginning of a new season of the Church year and not a part of Christmas, at all. We prefer, like good Anglicans, to go with the logic of the liturgy and regard January 5th as the Twelfth Day of Christmas and the night that ends that day as Twelfth Night.  That does make Twelfth Night the Eve of the Epiphany, which means that, liturgically, a new feast has already begun.  Perhaps it is this overlap that has led to the confusion.

However you count the days, Christmas is certainly worthy of an extended and proper celebration.  As we have done with our Devotion for the Last Days of Advent, we suggest a very simple daily devotion, perhaps at the main meal on each of the Twelve Days:

A Devotion for the Twelve Days of Christmas

One begins:
     Unto us a Child is born.
And all reply:  Come let us adore him.  

A hymn or carol may be sung, or the Angels' Hymn may be said or sung:

Angel with trumpet
Fra Angelico

Glory be to God on high,
    and on earth peace, good will towards men.
We praise thee, we bless thee,
    we worship thee, we glorify thee,
    we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.
O Lord, the only‑begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
    that takest away the sins of the world,
    have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
    receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
    have mercy upon us.
For thou only art holy,
thou only art the Lord,
thou only, O Christ,
    with the Holy Ghost,
    art most high in the glory of God the Father.  Amen.

The Lord's Prayer

A Christmas Collect

O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of
the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that as we
joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure
confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge;
who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one
God, world without end.  Amen.

Grace before a Meal


Photo  by Wil and Harry Connolly of the 2000 Christmas Pageant at Grace and St. Peter's, Baltimore

Full homely divinity means a faith that is rooted in daily life.  It is not a mystical spirituality or an intellectual project, but practical actions that are the fruit of hearts and souls that are transformed by the Word who became flesh in a stable in Bethlehem.  So, on this feast more than any other, we should seek literally to incarnate our faith in concrete acts.  Certainly, this includes regular participation in worship, but truly homely divinity includes crches, cookies and candy canes, feasting, singing and charity, and even study. We have tried to match some appropriate activities to each of the Twelve Days.  Use your own creativity to come up with more.

Christmas Eve 

Ceramic crche figures from Acoma Pueblo, New MexicoThe First Day of Christmas begins (as all feasts do) the night before.  There is so much to do!  But one of the most important things to prepare is the Christmas crche.  This is a tradition that began with St. Francis of Assisi.  Francis loved Christmas and he wanted others to understand the deep connection between their own lives and the life of Jesus.  He could think of no better way to do that than to give them a living picture of the birth of their Savior.  The first crche was also the first Christmas pageant.  In a church in Greccio, in 1223, Francis had people enact a live tableau, with Mary and Joseph, the Infant lying in a box of straw, the shepherds, and all of the animals.  It was Francis who introduced animals into the story, for the Gospels do not mention them, other than the shepherds' flocks.  But Jesus was born in a stable, so there had to be animals!

We are familiar with live pageants, like the one pictured above.  Ours are usually in a church, or perhaps on the lawn of a church or park, but there is also a tradition of family pageants. In 1531, Martin Luther wrote his Christmas hymn, Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her, for the family Christmas Eve pageant.  Larger and more ambitious households might want to consider making this part of the family Christmas traditions. The advantage of a crche is that it can be kept for many days and figures can be added or removed as part of the continuing remembrance of the story.   Ceramic wise men, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

The household crche should be set up before going to church on Christmas Eve, but wait until after church to place the infant Jesus in the scene, and sing a familiar carol, such as Silent Night, before retiring for the night.  Save the angel and the shepherds for Christmas morning.  And the wise men do not arrive until Epiphany, so put them at the other end of the room or even in a different room of the house, moving them every day or so a little closer to Bethlehem. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City displays an elborate Neapolitan crche every year. Click here to view photos.

The crche is a visual expression of the story of Christmas. In one sense, the words of the Gospel say all that needs to be said. But it is a story that is cannot be reduced to a few words or a few images. Here is a poem by G.K. Chesterton that might be regarded as a verbal crche.

The House of Christmas
By G. K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Yule Logs and Christmas Candles

Christmas: Its Origin and Associations, by William Francis Dawson; Project GutenbergTaking its name from the Scandinavian celebration of the winter solstice, Yule, the burning of a special log at the darkest time of the year is a custom that was widespread, across northern Europe and Asia from Ireland to Siberia and south as far as Greece. Originally, the great fire represented the sun which had gone missing in the long night. However, when Christianity came, the symbolism was transferred to the Sun of Righteousness, the Savior Jesus Christ, the true Light who was incarnate on a dark and silent night. In England, the Yule log was a great trunk of an oak tree, cut on the previous Candlemas. Oak was the summer king of the forest in the religion of the Druids, who gave way to the holly in winter. Various ceremonies and customs surrounded the burning of the Yule log. The log itself was often decorated and it was always lit with a bit of the log saved from the previous year. As it marked the beginning of a new year, the sins and errors of the previous year were symbolically burned. In Christian times, the lighting of the log on Christmas Eve marked the beginning of the celebration of Christmas in the home. This was accompanied by the singing of carols, the telling of stories, and, of course, much feasting. In some cultures, as long as the log still burned, no work was allowed. In England, the Yule log was supposed to burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Needless to say, this required quite a massive log and quite a massive hearth to hold it--generally the hall of the local nobles.

Smaller households, with smaller hearths, might also burn smaller logs, though not for the whole season. And other customs arose to supplement or replace the Yule log. One of these was the Christmas candle, a tall candle, usually white, which was lit in the home on Christmas Eve and kept burning for the twelve days. This is a custom those of us who do not have a fireplace can keep. The candle should be in a prominent place in the home--perhaps by the family crche or on the dining room table. It could be the candle placed in the center of the Advent wreathBuche de Noel--though the four week old wreath might need to be refreshed if it is going to continue to serve for twelve more days.

The French found another way to continue the Yule log custom in the absence of a great hearth: Buche de Noel. Food can be a most satisfying substitute for many older and no longer viable customs. In this case, the confection is a cake roll, decorated to look like a log. Sometimes a candle is placed in it to preserve the idea that this has to do with fire and light. However, once sliced, it is not likely to last twelve minutes, let alone twelve days--but few would complain about that.

Finally, there is the televised Yule log, now also available online here.

Christmas Day

Traditionally, there are three celebrations of the Eucharist on Christmas:  the Midnight Mass, the Mass of Dawn, and the Mass of the Day. Parishes often have reasons for arranging their service schedule differently, and it should be noted that there is no obligation to attend more than one celebration of the Eucharist on Christmas.  There was much ado about nothing back in 2005 over the question whether or not churches should have had services on Christmas morning, since it was also Sunday.  The simple answer to that question is that Christmas is Christmas no matter what day of the week it falls on.  When Christmas falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence over Sunday (this is true for several other major feasts, as well).  Anyone who attends a Christmas Eve service has properly celebrated both Christmas and the Lord's Day--they are one and the same.  On the other hand, each of the three traditional Christmas masses has a different "theme" and these are helpful to remember in other ways.  The first, the "Midnight Mass", is about the birth of Jesus.  The second, the "Mass of Dawn", is about the visit of the shepherds.  The third, the "Mass of the Day", focuses attention on the mystery of the Word made flesh.

So, it makes sense to make Christmas Day, the First Day of Christmas, the shepherds' day.  Before opening gifts and having breakfast, or, if you happen to be one who likes to attend the Eucharist on Christmas morning, do this when you get home, read Luke 2:15-20 and put the angel and the shepherds in the crche.  Then say this prayer, and pass out candy canes, and hang some on the tree.

A Prayer for Candy Canes
(for a shorter version, use just the second paragraph)

O God, our Father, our Shepherd, and our King, we give thee thanks for the many shepherds who have fed thy people and pointed the way to our salvation:  for Abraham, the friend of God, who left his home and took his flocks to follow wherever thou would'st lead; for Moses, who didst leave his sheep with his father-in-law Jethro, and went to Egypt to lead thy people to the new pastures of freedom; for David, whom thou didst call from guarding his fathers sheep to be King over thy people Israel; and for the nameless shepherds of Bethlehem who were the first to hear the news that a Savior was born, and who left their flocks to see this thing which had come to pass.

We thank thee, Father, for thy Son Jesus Christ, who was born to be the Good Shepherd of thy people.  May these candy canes, shaped like a shepherds crook, be for us signs of thy constant love for thy flock.  May their sweetness remind us of the joys of thy heavenly Kingdom.  And may all who see them experience the joy and wonder of the shepherds who were the first to visit thy Son who was laid in a manger so long ago, and who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.


Red and Green

Red chasuble with green orphreys, by Holy Rood GuildAs long as anyone can remember in the West, the traditional colors for Christmas decorations have been red and green. Everywhere one turns, the landscape is red and green--for everything, that is, except the liturgical color of the feast. In one of our churches, we now celebrate Christmas in red vestments, trimmed in green. Not surprisingly, this has not met with universal approval. Tradition is strong and we respect that. At the same time, we introduced this change as a way of encouraging people to see how even the secularized celebration of Christmas is rooted in richly theological imagery. Some Christmas customs are even "baptized" versions of much older winter solstice observances, and some have continued to be practiced without acquiring any Christian significance. Mistletoe falls into the latter category. Believed by the ancient Celts to have miraculous healing powers, mistletoe was hung over the doors of homes as a sign of good will and reconciliation. These are Christian values but, as far as we can discover, there is no distinctly Christian rationale for the use of mistletoe in this way. We just keep on doing it because we always have. Evergreen trees and wreaths fall under the same rubric, to some extent. Christmas wreathEvergreen plants and circles are more or less universal symbols of eternity. Eternal life is the great gift the Christ Child brings to us on Christmas but this does not automatically qualify conifer trees, branches, and wreaths as specifically Christian symbols--until St. Boniface comes along in the eighth century. When St. Boniface chopped down an oak tree, regarded as sacred by the Germanic pagans he was attempting to convert, a fir tree sprang up from the stump, with its branches pointing to heaven. The miracle and its interpretation gave the evergreen family of trees an unquestioned and permanent place in the constellation of natural Christian symbols.

hollyAs the song tells us (Deck the halls with boughs of holly), conifers are not the only evergreen trees that have loaned their lively color to the celebration of the winter solstice and the Christian festival of Christmas. It is the evergreen holly, with its red berries, that gives us one of the reasons for the use of red at this season. Holly was part of winter solstice celebrations long before the advent of Christianity and Christmas. The oak and the holly were the two great sacred trees of the Celts, with the oak ruling in the summer and the holly ruling in the winter. Christians found two symbolic meanings in the holly. The sharp, pointed leaves reminded them of the crown of thorns which was placed on Jesus' head when he was condemned to be crucified, and the berries signified his blood. Because the cross is central to our faith, it is always present, even at the celebration of his birth. Holly also recalls an older story, Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush, with the red berries reminiscent of the fire within that did not consume the green bush. Furthermore, in traditional typology, Mary is the burning bush who carries God himself in her womb, but is not consumed.

Red comes into the celebration in another way, in the form of an apple:

Adam, A. Durer, 1507


Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter,
Thought he not too long.

And all was for an apple,
An apple that he took.
As clerkes finden,
Written in their book.

Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Ne had never our ladie,
Abeen heav'ne queen.

Blessed be the time
That apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen.
Deo gracias!

15th Century, English

Eve, A. Durer, 1507


The Bible does not tell us that the forbidden fruit was an apple. Nevertheless, by the Middle Ages, as can be seen both in the carol and in the Durer paintings, in the popular conception it was an apple.Christmas ornament--an apple core So it was, also, in the popular mystery plays. Apples could be easily enough preserved to be used as decorations, as food, and as gifts at Christmas, and so the apple and its rich color became fixed in the celebration of Christmas. It is still found there today, though few people remember its origin as an integral part of the celebration of the feast.

One manifestation of this is found in a poem by an unknown New England author, collected by Joshua Smith of New Hampshire in 1784 and included in his Divine Hymns and Spiritual Songs. In this poem (the words are found below), Jesus Christ is the Tree of Life, that is, the apple tree. Here is the choir of King's College, Cambridge, singing Elizabeth Poston's setting of the carol. 


The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne'er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
'Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I'm weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.


Finally, the New World has contributed a flower from Central America to the Christmas decor and a lovely legend to go with it. The story tells of two poor Mexican children (their names vary from telling to telling) who had nothing to offer the Christ Child on Christmas. On their way to church, they picked some weeds from the side of the road. Although the other children made fun of them, they placed the weeds before the crche. Poinsettias - Flor de la NochebuenaImmediately, they blossomed into the flowers we now call poinsettias, but which Mexicans call the Flor de la Nochebuena, the flower of the Holy Night. Tomie dePaola has illustrated this story in a book for children. It is also said that the red bracts, the colored leaves that surround the tiny flowers of the plant, resemble the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem. These plants, which are now used around the world to decorate for Christmas, get their name from Joel R. Poinsett, the ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s who first brought them to the U.S.


Exchanging Gifts

Exchanging gifts is one of the most popular Christmas customs.  Many people who make no pretence of observing Christmas as a religious holiday, keep this custom.  Christians give one another gifts in imitation of the divine Giver, our Father who has given us the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ.  We do not need to abandon this custom, but we should try to redeem it from the secular spirit which has taken it over.  Giving gifts on Christmas is not a universal custom among Christians.  In some countries, gifts are given on the Feast of the Epiphany, in imitation of the Wise Men who brought gifts to the Christ Child.  Another custom, memorialized in the famous song about the twelve days of Christmas, is to give a gift on each of the twelve days.  It is not likely that many families, particularly families with children, would be able to resist the cultural pressure to give gifts on Christmas itself.  But it might be possible to extend the gift giving over several days, not opening every gift on Christmas Day, and perhaps even to save at least one gift for Epiphany.


Santo Nio de Atocha

Dressed in his pilgrim's cloak and hat, with a gourd full of water hanging from his staff and a basket of bread in his hand, Santo Nio de Atocha is prepared for a night of travelling about the countryside to come to the aid of the needy, particularly those in prison or in danger from hazardous occupations. In gratitude for his help, and because he is constantly wearing out his shoes in his nightly journeys, the faithful leave shoes for him at his shrine. The cult of this locally popular manifestation of the Holy Child Jesus grew and is nourished by a lively faith in the Incarnate God who promised to be with us always--and is. When the Moors ruled Spain, Christians in the town of Atocha were persecuted and imprisoned, and were given no food. The caliph decreed that only children under the age of 12 were permitted to visit the prisoners and bring them food. The faithful prayed to Our Lady of Atocha that she would intercede with her Son on behalf of those who had no children. After that, children visiting their parents reported seeing an unfamiliar child whose gourd was never dry and whose basket of food was never empty. The people of Atocha had no doubt who this stupendous stranger was. Indeed, it was reported that the statue of the Child was missing from his Mother's arms during the night and, when he returned in the morning, his shoes were dirty and worn. Furthermore, when those shoes were replaced, they, too, were quickly worn out.

Spanish settlers brought their devotion to the Holy Child of Atocha with them to America. When miners were trapped after an explosion in Fresnillo, the townspeople called on Our Lady of Atocha. A little child ministered to the trapped men and, again, his statue disappeared for periods of time and, when he returned, he was dirty and his clothes were torn. His shrine there became a place of pilgrimage and healing, and devotion to him spread. By the end of the 19th century, he also had a shrine at Chimayo, New Mexico, where miracles of healing are attributed to him.  The famous Indian potter Maria Martinez was taken to Chimayo for healing when she was a child, and the shrine was the scene of a large pilgrimage of grateful survivors of Corregidor, Bataan, and Japanese prison camps after World War II.

Santo Nio's feast day is Christmas, his birthday, when he and his family were homeless and needy, at the end of one journey and the beginning of another. As Christmas is a time when many people travel to be with family and friends, Santo Nio is also on the road, giving comfort and aid to those in need and reminding us that his story is one that continues to our day and beyond. Our point here is that an Incarnation that is real, like a divinity that is homely, is constantly finding new expression in the evolving cultures in which it is proclaimed. Santo Nio is not a new Incarnation of God. He is simply the one Incarnation experienced in a new situation.

The Second Day of Christmas - December 26th
The Feast of St. Stephen

This day has the additional title "Boxing Day", and it is a holiday in several countries.  There are various explanations for this name, but they all boil down to the idea that this is a day to be generous to those who are less fortunate than yourself.  The day celebrates the first person to give his life for the sake of Christ, St. Stephen, who was also one of the first deacons ordained to serve the poor.  Archbishop Thomas Becket has something to say about him which you can read today, or save for the 29th. Another saint who is closely associated with this day is St. Wenceslas of Bohemia whose charity to the poor is remembered in John Mason Neale's wonderful carol. The day after Christmas is a particularly good day to put the fabled "spirit of giving" into practice.  Take time today to perform an act of charity.  If you make end-of-the-year gifts to charities, write the checks  today.  Remembering  St.  Stephen, as well as our Lord's own sacrifice, this would be a good day to give blood, if the donation center is open.  Charity can take many forms.  Whatever form yours takes, make sure to sing or whistle "Good King Wenceslaus" while you are doing it!  St. Stephen's Day is a Prayer Book Holy Day, a day on which one should also participate in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

The Third Day of Christmas - December 27th
The Feast of St. John

The Feast of St. John the Evangelist is the second of three Prayer Book Holy Days immediately following Christmas Day.  The third and final Mass of Christmas, the "Mass of the Day", has as its Gospel the beginning of St. John's Gospel which proclaims the mystery of the Word made flesh.  Today would be a particularly good day to spend some time reading and meditating on John 1: 1-14.

Serene, contemplative second part from Olivier Messiaen's 'Le Verbe' (La Nativit du Seigneur, fourth movement, 1935).
Played by Willem Tanke on the main organ of the Grote of St. Laurenskerk, Rotterdam (Marcussen, 1973).

Tradition tells us that John was once given a cup of poisoned wine, but drank it with no ill effect.  A chalice with a serpent signifying the powerless poison is one of his symbols.  In spite of exile and attempts to kill him, John lived to a great old age.  In his last years it is said that he had to be carried to the assembly of the Church and, when he was asked to speak, he would say, simply, "My dear children, love one another."

It is the custom to bless wine on St. John's day, and to drink a toast to the love of God and to the saint.

Chalice of St. John
Hans Memling

The Blessing of Wine on St. John's Day

Lord Jesus Christ, Thou didst call Thyself the vine and Thy holy Apostles the branches; and out of all those who love Thee, Thou didst desire to make a good vineyard. Bless this wine and pour into it the might of Thy benediction.  Grant that every one who drinks of it may, through the intercession of Thy beloved disciple the holy Apostle and Evangelist John, find courage and strength to pursue the Way, be renewed in the Truth of the Word made flesh, and at the last enter into Life everlasting, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever.  Amen.

A glass of wine is then passed around the table.  As it is passed, the giver says::

Drink to the love of St. John.

And the recipient answers:

For where love is, there is God.

The Fourth Day of Christmas - December 28th
The Feast of the Holy Innocents - "Childermass"

In some places, it was the custom on this day to beat children, in order to remind them of the sad and unjust end of the innocent children whom King Herod ordered to be slaughtered in his attempt to destroy Jesus.  We seriously doubt the wisdom or the effectiveness of such a discipline today.  There are other, more positive, traditions that we recommend.  Holy Innocents' Day (another Prayer Book Holy Day on which attendance at the Eucharist is proper) is the traditional day for the installation of the Boy Bishop (learn more about this custom by clicking here).  This is a day when children should have the preeminence in family life, leading the family prayers, making decisions about family activities for the day, having the place of honor at meals, and so forth.  Households that do not have children might "adopt" a neighborhood family or two with their children and make a party at which the children are the guests of honor.

The story of the Holy Innocents is one of the most poignant stories in all of Scripture, "Rachel weeping for her children... because they are no more."  It is a day to give thanks for the children in our lives, whether in our own families or in the larger family of the Church.  And it is a good day to revive the ancient custom of parents blessing their children at the end of the day, as part of their nightly prayers. 

The Blessing of Children by Parents

O God our Father, whose Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, once embraced the little children who were brought to him, saying, "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and their angels always see the face of my Father;"  Look now, we beseech thee, on the innocence of these children: Bless them and protect them this night and throughout their lives; (the parent makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each child) in thy grace and goodness let them advance continually, longing for thee, knowing thee, and loving thee, that they may at the last come to their destined home and behold thee face to face; through Jesus Christ, the Holy Child of Bethlehem, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Then, taking the head of each child in both hands, a parent says to each one:  May God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit bless you and keep you both now and for evermore.  Amen.

Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph
Rembrandt van Rijn

The Fifth Day of Christmas - December 29th
The Feast of St. Thomas Becket

The Martyrdom, site of the murder of St. Thomas

In 1170, on the Fifth Day of Christmas, four knights from the court of King Henry II burst into Canterbury Cathedral as the Archbishop was on his way to Vespers.  Just inside the cloister door, they murdered Thomas Becket, whose defense of the rights of the Church had angered his onetime friend, the King.  Within three years, Thomas was canonized, and the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury was set to become one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims from all over Europe.  In his play, "Murder in the Cathedral," T.S. Eliot reconstructs from historical sources the Archbishop's final sermon, preached in the cathedral on Christmas Day.  It is a remarkable meditation on the meaning of Christmas, martyrdom, and the true meaning of "peace on earth."  The Fifth Day of Christmas, the anniversary of Becket's death and his feast day, is an opportunity to reflect on the broader meaning of Christmas by reading the Archbishop's sermon.  You can also sing your reflection with this hymn for the martyr's feast. The Becket Panel at Wymondham Abbey offers a visual meditation on the life of the Archbishop.

The  red bill  and  legs of the chough are unique to this member  of  the  crow  family.  In  heraldry they are  known  as "beckits" and three choughs were found on the coat of arms of Archbishop Thomas.  The chough was a popular symbol of his resistance to the King.  In Britain today they are found only on the western side of the islands, but efforts are being made to restore them to Kent.  An outdoor activity for this day might include ensuring that the bird feeder is full and spending some time watching the many varieties of birds that visit it.

The Sixth Day of Christmas - December 30th

The Sixth Day of Christmas is a quiet day in the calendar.  If you have not already written your Christmas cards, this would be a good day to do that.  Friends who receive a card sent today will be reminded that Christmas continues for twelve days.  The next two days could be quite busy with lots of guests.  Today would also be a good day to begin preparing some of the refreshments that will be needed on those days.

The Seventh Day of Christmas - December 31st

Although the end of the year falls in the middle of Christmastide, it has no particular relationship to the Feast.  In fact, January 1st has not always been observed in Christian countries as the first day of the new year.  In ancient Rome, the year began on March 1st.  Later, in many countries of Europe, the year began on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation.  The change to January 1st was gradual.  Scotland changed in 1600, and England changed when the Gregorian calendar was adopted there in 1752.  While the beginning of the secular year has no direct connection to Christmas, it is, traditionally, a time of celebration and hospitality, themes which are familiar and entirely appropriate to the Twelve Days.  The traditional English drink for this season was Wassail (from the Saxon Was haile, meaning "to your health").  When your friends and family come "wassailing," whether on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day, have a bowl of this traditional punch ready for them, to drink to their health and yours.  The website Catholic Culture provides two recipes:  Wassail and Wassail Bowl.

The Eighth Day of Christmas - January 1st
The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus

St. Luke tells us that, in accordance with Jewish tradition and law, eight days after his birth Jesus was circumcised and named.  While a "rose by any other name may smell as sweet", nevertheless, the name of the rose evokes particular memories and sensations for those who know the flower by that name. Many parents spend hours and hours thinking about the name they want to give to a child.  Sometimes a child is given a name with the intention of honoring a member of the family or a friend or a hero. Sometimes a name is given simply because the parents like the sound of it.  Sometimes a name is given because it signifies a meaning that will be, or the parents hope will be, manifest in the child's life:  Mary and Joseph named their son Jesus because the angel told them that "he will save his people".  Jesus, in Hebrew Joshua, means "the Lord will save".  Does your name have a meaning?  There are lots of websites that will help you answer that question--just GoogleTM "names" and you are in business.  Do you know why your parents chose your name?  As part of the celebration of this day, use your favorite sugar cookie recipe and cut the cookies into the initials of members of the household as a reminder of their names.  Your name, or your baptismal name, may also be the name of a saint.  Do you know when that saint's feast day is?  That is your name day, which in some countries is celebrated instead of a birthday.

Icon of St. Basil the Great and
the Circumcision of Christ
by Fr. John Matusiak
on the website Orthodoxy in China

In English tradition, this is a day to remember godparents.  Children would go to visit their godparents to receive a blessing and a gift.  There was a time when being a godparent was much more than an honor bestowed on friends of the parents.  It was a serious responsibility, for godparents were not only expected to teach the faith to their godchildren, but they were also the people who would take a child into their own home if the child's parents were to die.  Once again, our friends at Catholic Culture have a recipe for godcakes, a pastry that could be given either by godparents to their godchildren--or the children could be the givers.  Godparents could also use the blessing of children (from the Fourth Day of Christmas, above) to bless their godchildren.

The Ninth Day of Christmas - January 2nd

In the Orthodox Church, January 1st is the Feast of St. Basil the Great, who is pictured in the top portion of the icon above.  Although he is celebrated in the West on June 14th  we would not want to miss an opportunity to incorporate a custom and a recipe into our observance of the Twelve Days.  And, since the West tends to prefer a limit of one feast to a day, we have moved Basil over to January 2nd.  In Greece, it is the custom to bake a bread or cake called Vassilopita (Basil in Greek is Vassilis).  The cake has a coin baked into it and the person who gets the coin in his or her piece of cake is destined for good luck in the coming year.  Here is a link to one of the many recipes for Vassilopita, together with an explanation of the protocols for cutting and distributing the pieces.

The Tenth Day of Christmas - January 3rd

Another activity we have suggested for the Twelve Days of Christmas is to learn some new Christmas carols and hymns.  If you scroll down on this page, you will find our list of carols and hymns.  If you have been learning a new song each day, you now have a large enough repertoire for a good old fashioned carol sing.  If you have not been learning a carol every day, you have plenty to keep you busy today!  Why not invite some friends in, warm up the leftover wassail, and do some singing?  You could even include some of the old favorites everyone already knows while you warm up your voices.

The Eleventh Day of Christmas - January 4th

Christmas is a time of wonder when the imagination works overtime.  And out of that imaginative energy have come many stories that tell us how the Holy Child of Bethlehem has touched the lives of people, both great and small, through the centuries.  If you have some favorites, use today to sit down and reread them. Better yet, have a reading.  Gather family and friends, and especially children. Those who are old enough to read can read their favorites out loud.  And those who do not yet read should be encouraged to request their favorites for someone else to read.

One of our favorites is the story known as "The Clown of God".  It appears in several different versions, but if you do not happen to have one, Tomie dePaola has  illustrated  a lovely one.  It is the story of a  traveling  juggler  who  has come home to the town of his birth after he has become too old to carry on.  He arrives on Christmas Eve as the townspeople are gathering for the Midnight Mass of Christmas.  The old juggler has no gift for the Child and so he gives the performance of his life and juggles.


The Twelfth Day of Christmas - January 5th

It is often called the "Christmas star" and it is seen in crches and in artworks depicting the Nativity of our Lord.  But the star does not actually come into the story until the entrance of the Wise Men, and Matthew indicates that their visit was some time after the birth of Jesus, perhaps as much as two years.  By the time the Wise Men arrive, the Holy Family is neither in a stable nor in an inn, but a house.  We do not have to be literalists about details like this, but we could save the star for the end of Christmas, and as a segue into Epiphany.  If the Wise Men for your crche have been making their way through the house or even just across the room, today might be the day to hang the star.  Before hanging the star, get out your favorite cookie recipe and your star cookie cutter and make some star cookies.  (If you don't have a favorite recipe, here is one that looks good.)  Make enough to have some samples when you hang the star, and more to eat tomorrow when Epiphany is in full swing.  The shepherds and the angels should be back in their box.  In fact, they could have been removed days ago.  The Wise Men may need to make their visit to a stable, rather than a house, but, as we said, we do not have to be literalists about this.  And, wherever they encounter the King for whom they have been searching, they may arrive in the crche either tonight or tomorrow morning.

Epiphany really begins this evening, as Twelfth Night is the Eve of the Epiphany, so we have two reasons for a party:  the end of Christmas and the beginning of Epiphany.  In the middle ages, these Twelfth Night parties could get quite rowdy.  It was the Feast of Fools in which the order of the world was turned upside down, with fools reigning as kings and all sorts of people taking on roles quite the opposite of their true character. Shakespeare, in his play by the same name, gives us a picture of such a topsy-turvy world as Viola masquerades as a man, people fall in love across class lines, and the lowly indulge in ridiculous delusions of grandeur.  It would be quite foolish to deny the Christian significance of all of this.  There are few things more serious and true than the games people play.  The medieval Feast of Fools reminds us that Christmas celebrates nothing less than a world turned upside down in which God becomes man in order that man might become divine.  So, party on!

Twelfth-night (The King Drinks)
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690)

As Christmas ("Twelvetide") comes to an end, some say that it is time to take down the Christmas greens. (Click here for another opinion.) Traditionally, they are burned in a great bonfire. Bonfires are festive in themselves, but on this night, the fire is a sign and a reminder of spiritual things. First of all, it is a continuing reminder of the true Light who came into the world at the darkest time of the year. Secondly, it reminds us of the star which led the pagan philosophers towards spiritual illumination. Next, from ancient times, Epiphany has been known as the Feast of Lights, recalling the persecuted Christians who carried candles and torches to their secret meetings at night in the catacombs, and sometimes became torches themselves at the hands of their persecutors. Finally, it was also an occasion when catechumens were baptized, and thus illuminated by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Today, Baptism is often celebrated on Epiphany and it is a custom of longstanding to present the newly baptized with a candle to remind them of what has happened to them.

It would be appropriate to begin Evening Prayer on Twelfth Night with the bonfire of the greens and to carry the flame from the bonfire into church to light the candles at the singing of the hymn to the light. Here is a prayer which might be used to bless the fire as the bonfire is lit:

O God, who sent fire from heaven upon the sacrifice offered by Elijah, the prophet of the Anointed One; who led the children of Israel through the desert with the pillar of fire; who led wise men from the East to the house of Wisdom by a fiery star; and who fulfilled the prophecy of John the Forerunner by sending the Christ who baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire: Pour your blessing upon this Epiphany flame that it may be a reminder to all of the true Light who came into the world as at this time, and who ignites us with the Holy Spirit to lead us on our pilgrimage with the fire of his Love; through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

As the fire burns, here is a carol that might be sung. It was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., about whom you can read more on the Epiphany page. Music for the carol is here.

Gather around the Christmas tree!
Gather around the Christmas tree!
Evergreen have its branches been,
It is king of all the woodland scene;
For Christ our King is born today!
His reign shall never pass away.

Hosanna, hosanna,
       Hosanna in the highest!

Gather around the Christmas tree!
Gather around the Christmas tree!
Once the pride of the mountainside,
Now cut down to grace our Christmastide;
For Christ from Heavn to earth came down,
To gain, through death, a nobler crown.


Gather around the Christmas tree!
Gather around the Christmas tree!
Every bough bears a burden now
They are gifts of love for us, we trow;
For Christ is born, His love to show,
And give good gifts to men below.


Farewell to thee, O Christmas tree!
Farewell to thee, O Christmas tree!
Twelve months oer, we shall meet once more,
Merry welcome singing, as of yore,
For Christ now reigns, our Savior dear,
And gives us Christmas every year!



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A Hymn a Day for the Twelve Days of Christmas

OK, after a month of the secular "holiday season," you really are tired of the usual Christmas hymns and carols.  But what would the celebration of Christmas be without music?  So, why not make the Twelve Days of Christmas into a truly musical festival by singing and, if necessary, learning some different hymns and carols?  Here are some that we suggest.  Chances are, there are several that you will not sing in church this year, and at least one or two that you have never sung.  When you click on the hymn title, you will open a new window that will usually provide the text and will also play the tune so you can sing along.  Some of these selections are in your hymnal, and some are not--and some of the ones that are will not be exactly the same text, or translation, or tune.  Many of the original links on this page were to the Cyber Hymnal. We have discovered, to our great regret, that the Cyber Hymnal seems to have gone off line. We will do our best to redirect old links, and we apologize if we are unable to provide links for all of the hymns below. If and when the Cyber Hymnal returns to the web, we will renew any missing links.

The First Day of Christmas:  Christmas Day - Christians, awake, salute the happy morn
This hymn was written as a Christmas present to the author's daughter, but it is not about merry old elves or sugar plum fairies.  Rather, it has a very exalted theme:  "Rise to adore the mystery of love."

The Second Day of Christmas:  The Feast of St. Stephen - Good King Wenceslas
This carol is not really about St. Stephen, the first Christian to give his life for Christ, but it is about giving.  The second day of Christmas, "Boxing Day", has traditionally been a day to serve the poor, as the great Bohemian saint demonstrated.  The carol was written by Anglicanism's prolific hymnographer, John Mason Neale.

Gerard David (1460-1523)

The Third Day of Christmas:  The Feast of St. John the Evangelist - Praise God for John
Here is a relatively new hymn, written to celebrate the mystical evangelist John.  The text is still under copyright, so you will have to look it up in The Hymnal 1982.  But the link will take you to Sir Arthur Sullivan's tune, with the seasonally appropriate title "Noel."

The Fourth Day of Christmas:  The Feast of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem - Coventry Carol
This Renaissance carol tells the story of the boys whom this day commemorates--no sugar plum fairies here, either.

The Fifth Day of Christmas:  The Feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury - The Huron Carol
Jean de Brbeuf was a 16th century Jesuit missionary to the Native Americans of Ontario.  He wrote this carol in the Huron language and incorporated local color into the ancient story.  Like Archbishop Thomas Becket, whose feast this is, de Brbeuf was martyred.

The Sixth Day of Christmas - On this day earth shall ring
This 16th century carol has a Latin refrain:  Ideo gloria in excelsis Deo:  "Therefore, glory to God in the highest!"

The Seventh Day of Christmas - Love came down at Christmas
Christina Rossetti may be better known for another Christmas hymn, "In the bleak midwinter," which gives a very intimate perspective on the Christmas story.  "Love came down at Christmas" is more directly theological, but it, too, is about the mystery of the intimate love of God for humankind.

The Eighth Day of Christmas:  The Holy Name of Jesus - Jesus! Name of wondrous love!
On the eighth day after his birth, a Jewish boy is circumcised and named.  Until then he has no identity, either as a member of a community or as an individual.  Circumcision binds him by blood to God and makes him a member of God's covenant community.  The name he is given is more than a calling card:  it expresses his true identity.  "Jesus" is the Human Name of God above.

Angel of the Annunciation
Fra Angelico (1387-1455)

The Ninth Day of Christmas - From heaven above to earth I come
Congregations were moved by Martin Luther's poignant telling of the Christmas story.  It was as if they were really there in Bethlehem.  This truly homely hymn was written for his little son and was dramatized every year in the family celebration of Christmas Eve.  Perhaps Martin himself sang the part of the angel whom little Hans bid "Welcome to earth."

The Tenth Day of Christmas - Dost thou in a manger lie
The poet asks "If [thou art] a monarch, where [is] Thy state? Where Thy court on Thee to wait?"  And into the mouth of the Infant he puts words that echo St. Paul's great hymn of the Incarnation in Philippians 2:  "though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...."

The Eleventh Day of Christmas - I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In - words here; sing along with Aled Jones  and the Royal College Of Music Chamber Choir
In a majestic, yet playful, metaphor, the Holy Trinity delivers Christ to Bethlehem on the day of his birth.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas A Babe is born in Bethlehem
This 14th century Benedictine processional recapitulates the story for us one more time, and anticipates the arrival of the wise men tomorrow, on the Feast of the Epiphany.

And one more for a baker's dozen - See amid the winter's snow
Edward Caswall of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri wrote this fine text which is set to music by John Goss, long-time organist of St. Paul's, London.

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Background music thanks to the Internet Renaissance BandWhile Shepherds Watched

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