Many of us are familiar with this traditional Christmas song, yet many of us are unaware of its significance to the church. In his essay, Dennis Bratcher explains the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas as it relates to the church. In the Western church, the twelve days of Christmas begins on Christmas day (December 25), and ends on January 5, the day before Epiphany (January 6). In some cultures, the twelve days are counted from December 26 and ends on January 6 to include Epiphany. Regardless of how the twelve days are counted, the fact remains that Christmas was celebrated as a season, and not just one day.
As a Spiritual teacher within the Christian faith, I have great admiration for traditions that honor our Lord - Jesus Christ; however, since my spiritual beliefs tend to be more nature-based than church-dictated, I prefer to start counting the twelve days of Christmas from December 21 (the winter solstice) and end it on January 1 (New Years day). The reason why I start on December 21 and not on December 25 is because I want to honor the God of winter - Jesus Christ- for bringing an end to the lengthening nights, and for the gradually increasing daylight throughout the winter months. I end the celebration on January 1, to give thanks for the new year which has started.
Biblically speaking, the new year really does not start on January 1, as January 1st , as the start of the new year, is a construct of the Roman/Gregorian calendar. The natural new year of nature, starts in the spring, which is the time when the earth is renewed and revived from the sleep and death of winter. The astronomical event - the vernal equinox- marks the beginning of Spring, and the start of the natural year and the religious calendar of the Bible. In the fall, another new year is celebrated and recognized by the Bible as well. The new year celebrations of the fall season, which was known as the Feast of Trumpets in the Bible, but is now called Rosh Hashanah by modern-day Jews, marks the beginning of the Biblical civil new year, and occurs around the time of the atumunal equinox, and the sighting of the new moon. I however also celebrate January 1 as the new year because we are following the Gregorian calendar, which is what we are using to count time in our secular world. Alas! I now have three calendars to keep abreast with - the Hebrew civil calendar, the Hebrew religious calendar/natural year calendar, and the Roman/Gregorian calendar! How do I keep it all together? It is not as hard as some may believe. The Hebrew religious calendar follows the natural cycle of the seasons of the year. It is based upon the natural cycles of the sun and moon in the counting of days, months, and years. The Hebrew civil calendar starts on the seventh month of the religious/natural calendar, and coincides with the religious celebration called the Feast of Trumpets in the Bible, or Rosh Hashanah by modern Jews. After that day, I am no more concerned about the Hebrew civil calendar until the next Feast of Trumpets/Rosh Hashannah, when the Biblical civil year starts all over again. The reason I am not concerned about the Hebrew civil calendar for the rest of the year is because it is not used for any civil purposes within our society. It was used by the Jews back then to mark time, but even for the Jews, the religious holy days and feast days were based upon the natural year/religious calendar. For my daily secular activities, I follow the Gregorian calendar, because that is what our society uses, and if I want to keep abreast of what is going on in our world, then I would be in peril to ignore it.
So, enjoy the twelve days of Christmas, any way you choose to celebrate them, as long as God is honored. Let there be peace on earth and goodwill to all men. Let us not just limit Christmas to a day, or even to a season, but let the hope, peace, and love of Christmas spread out throughout the coming year.
Happy Kwanza! Happy holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy New year!