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the twelve days of christmas

December 27, 2011
by

Important Caveat: How you celebrate Christmas, or even whether you celebrate it, is a matter of Christian freedom. You can celebrate Christmas on one day, two days, twelve days, or zero days. For this reason, I am not trying to bind anyone’s conscience with this post. Instead, I want to shed some light on the historic Christian observation of Christmas. I also want to point out a few ways this can positively impact congregational practices and our individual lives. So, take this post for what it’s worth. It’s not a law to be followed. Rather, it is something to get you thinking about how you celebrate Christmas.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about how Grace didn’t sing Christmas songs during Advent. Instead, we were following the ancient practice of Advent First, Christmas Second. During Advent, the 4-week period leading up to Christmas, we weren’t singing songs of celebration like “Joy to the World”. Instead, we were singing songs of longing and expectation like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”.

By doing this, we were learning (through our congregational worship) the difficult practice of waiting on God. To use an Old Testament metaphor, we weren’t leapfrogging into the Promised Land. Rather, we were intentionally placing ourselves in the desert so we could practice the skills of directing our unfulfilled longings and desires to the Lord.

Truth be told, we haven’t mastered the skill of waiting on God yet. The virtue of developing patience in the desert isn’t something one masters in four weeks. So next year, we will “worship through longing” again during Advent.

But, as you all know, Christmas was two days ago. So now what?

The answer is pretty straightforward. The long wait of Advent is over, and the Christmas celebration has begun. And here’s the beautiful thing: you don’t have to limit Christmas to one or two days. The traditional Christmas celebration lasts for 12 days–from December 25th through January 5th. This historic practice is what gave rise to the popular song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

The Twelve Days are when we get to fully celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s a time of singing carols, reading the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth, being with friends and family, working less (if possible), eating great food, and thanking God that in Jesus, “the Word has become flesh and came to dwell with us”. (John 1).

I want you to notice the contrast between the common cultural approach to Christmas and the church calendar’s approach to Christmas. Our common cultural approach to Christmas feels like a mad dash to get everything ready followed by a very intense 48-hour period where we try to squeeze in all of our celebrating. It can be, well, a bit counter-productive.  No wonder we put Bourbon in our egg nog. 🙂

But this is a place where the church’s historical practices can really help us. Instead of being like a frantic sprint followed by a collapse, the traditional observance of Christmas is more of a leisurely stroll. You don’t have to get in all of your celebrating over the space of two days. You can spread out the feast over nearly two weeks. This not only takes some of the pressure off, it also teaches us something about true celebration. Our culture knows a lot about fleeting moments of euphoria. But observing an entire season of celebration teaches us something about developing lives of sustained joy. I really believe this is something that both we and our culture desperately need.

Some Practical Outworkings

How does observing Christmas in this way change things? I will briefly answer that question from two perspectives: 1) congregational and 2) personal.

From a congregational standpoint, this means that worship on January 1st is going to be a lot like it was on December 25th. We will continue to rejoice that God has sent Jesus to the world. It gives us another week to sing great Christmas songs and also takes a little pressure off expectations that Christmas worship be mind blowing and warp the fabric of space-time. Believe me, pastors, worship leaders and musicians really appreciate this. Normal we can do. Out of body experiences are harder to deliver on cue.

But, in all seriousness, most of us instinctively know that Christmas ends too soon. Observing the church calendar during Christmas season keeps the feast going one more week–and this is a good thing for the worshiping life of a congregation. Just as we need Advent worship to teach us how to live in the “Not Yet”, we need Christmas worship to teach us how to live in the “Already”.

From a personal standpoint, our family has embraced this tradition full-on. I’ll give you some of the highlights:

1) We try to do something devotionally on most days. I’m not a family devotional super-hero, so I need all the help I can get. The structure of the 12 Days helps me a lot. We often use the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song as a teaching tool and branch off from there. For example, last night we read the stories of Jesus’ youth from Matthew and sang the new song Jess & Annie wrote.

2) We spread out presents out over the 12 Days. This really helps with some of the over-materialization of Christmas (it also means I get to sleep at a reasonable hour on Christmas Eve). The kids still get presents and we love that, but the gifts take place within a larger context. Also, some days the “present” is a family activity like going to a movie or going sledding. On one of the 12 Days, we do some kind of family service project. We do things like bake cookies for homeless people and bring them to a local shelter. In other words, there is something to look forward to every day.

3) We spend a lot of time with friends and family. It’s a great time for playing games, discovering new iPad apps and watching completely meaningless college football bowl games. Spreading out our celebration also enables us to “open up” our family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Because we know we’re going to be spending a lot of time together for 12 days, there’s not as much pressure to be “alone as a family” every single day.

4) Observing the Christmas season really “institutionalizes slacking” in a way that is helpful. Face it, not a lot gets done during this time of year anyway. Calling the whole period a holiday really just simplifies things. I know not everyone can take time off from work (I am working more than I would like today). But it is a great relief to call it a holiday and lower our expectations for what we can get accomplished.

Conclusion

To sum things up, I think there is a great deal we can learn from the way that Christians have observed Christmas in the past. Adopting some of these older approaches can help us navigate through this time of year in a more intentional and helpful way. But please don’t be bound by any of the particulars. If I can boil down this post down to its essence I would say thi: Christmas is bigger than one day; it’s a season. Embrace it.

Joy to the World, the Lord has come!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. lisa d permalink
    December 27, 2011 12:29 pm

    Loved this!

  2. chad permalink
    December 27, 2011 7:29 pm

    Ummm, those college football games are only meaningless unless you’ve placed 3 dollars on the line in the office pool. Then every interception returned for a touchdown by North Carolina State is life or death. Life or death I tell you!

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