A former Roman Catholic student preparing to become an Episcopal priest recently asked me why we retain the Twelve Days of Christmas as Anglicans, but Roman Catholics do not. Both Rome and the Episcopal Church have undergone major liturgical reworking because of Liturgical Renewal, with the Episcopal Church profoundly influenced by Vatican II and its reforms. Rome decided it would be best for Christmas to be celebrated through the Baptism of Our Lord, the Sunday after the Epiphany, and let go of the more traditional Twelve Days. This is another case in which Anglicanism preserved an older liturgical tradition.
The Twelve Days correspond, among other things, to the months of the year, and in the Middle Ages were sometimes used as intercalary days — days to make up for the fact that months and solar years do not perfectly match. This correspondence was even expressed in superstitions. Folks would study the weather for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas to predict the climates of the next year. God has set the lights in the heavens for signs and seasons, and the 12 months correspond to the 12 signs the Sun passes through each year. The 12 tribes of Israel are one of the many ways that God designs things to be on Earth, as it is in the Heavens — 12 houses of Heaven and 12 houses of Israel. Jesus chooses 12 disciples to restore Israel and its 12 tribes, and thus, to restore the unity of Heaven and Earth — as he taught us to pray.
I delight in the way the liturgy we inherit is cosmic in expression and ramification. But my family struggles joyfully to walk through the Twelve Days in our consumer culture, our late capitalist economy. After all of Advent, having carefully avoided the American cultural “Holiday Season,” that builds up to and suddenly ends with Christmas Day, while also avoiding falling into cynicism or self-righteousness, by the time I get to the Twelve Days, I feel exhausted — spiritually exhausted from these efforts, and emotionally exhausted by the constant bombardment of consumer heartstrings to boost sales. As a seminary professor, I often also am aware of the pressure on my students taking General Ordination Examinations at this time, often right on the Principal Feast of the Epiphany — a strange day to administer a test, it has always seemed to me.
What if, instead of succumbing to Christmas fatigue, we were able to observe Advent in a way that prepares for the joy that is the Twelve Days of Christmas? Already, it is a season of preparation (historically, preparation for baptisms at the Epiphany; theologically, preparation for the second coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead; practically, preparation for the festivities and gift-giving of Christmas). Keeping Christmas throughout the whole Christmas season requires stamina. Such joy is hard to endure. Perhaps Advent could also serve to build us up to that necessary endurance.
In past years, I have entertained waiting until Christmas Eve to put up and decorate our Christmas tree, so that it can last all 12 days. I have had to give up on this, as there are no Christmas tree deliveries after the second week of Advent. We keep it up through Twelfth Night anyway. It is rather crispy and flammable by the time we put it on the side of the road for pickup. We have become rather strict about listening to Christmas music only on the Sundays of Advent so that, by the time Christmas and its 12 days come, we are not already sick to death of it.
This year, we hope to hold on to the mystery, all the way through Epiphany. This year we hope to be free of cynicism, or judgmentalism. Let everyone keep Christmas their own way, so long as we keep it. Praise God for blow-up Santa Clauses! We will decorate slowly, bringing the Christmas tree in on Gaudete Sunday. This year, we hope to celebrate the resurrection of the cosmos in the birth of our infant God. And let each of the Twelve Days bring Earth a little closer to Heaven, and us a little closer to God.