The 12 days of Christmas

Published 1:56pm Sunday, December 29, 2013

By Rev. Bob Henderson

Most of us have heard about the 12 days of Christmas thanks to the Christmas carol, but many may not know what it really means.

The 12 days of Christmas are the days after Christmas – between Christmas Day and Jan. 6, the date of Epiphany.

As opposed to the general practice in the United States, many other countries, cultures and some denominations, do not celebrate Christmas at all until Christmas day. The celebration then continues during the 12 days of Christmas.

After the 12 days, on Epiphany, many denominations celebrate the manifestation or revealing of Christ to the gentiles in the form of the Magi or Wise Men. In some parts of the world, the 12 days are also known as Christmastide.

Thanks to Shakespeare, most people have also heard about “Twelfth Night.” Often the question is asked: “Is Twelfth Night the Eve of the Epiphany (Jan. 5) or is it the night of Epiphany?”

Common sense and logic would dictate that the 12 days of Christmas begin on Dec. 25, making the 12th day Jan. 5 rather than Feast of Epiphany, Jan. 6.

What we forget is that in ancient times, nights and days were counted separately. Often the “eve” or night before a major Christian feast was as important or more important than the day of the feast itself. That is why many denominations still celebrate “Christmas Eve,” “All Hallows Eve (Halloween)” and “Easter Eve.”

While Christmas Day is not considered the first day of Christmas, the night of Dec. 25 is the first “night” of Christmas, and the 12th night of Christmas is the night of Jan. 5, even though the 12th day is Jan. 6. In reality, the 12 days “of” Christmas might be more accurately called the 12 days “after” Christmas Day.

But, of what major, earthshaking religious importance is calculating Twelfth Night?


Interesting, perhaps, but for all it matters to our faith, Twelfth Night could be April 2 or July 15.

What is important for us to remember and celebrate throughout the 12 Days of Christmas is that the birth of Jesus in the world was a gift from a God who loves us.

Likewise on Epiphany, Jan. 6, it is important to celebrate the manifestation and revelation of the Light of Christ, God in Christ Jesus, to us gentiles as we live in our dark, cold, sinful and broken world.

As Father Tim in Jan Karon’s “Mitford” series said, “The question is not whether God is up there. The question is whether God is down here.”

Christmas and Epiphany affirm that, indeed, “God is down here.”

And that, I think, is worth celebrating on any day.


The Rev. Bob Henderson is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Wetumpka.

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