Christmas is the only season of the church year that spans 2 years. This year it begins in 2019 and ends in a new year, 2020. We don’t think much about celebrating Christmas for twelve days anymore in the United States, although several other Christian cultures do. Some cultures wait to give and receive gifts until the first day after the Christmas season, January 6, the Epiphany, which commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men from the East to visit the Christ child.
The somewhat silly song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is just about the only reminder that once upon a time, Christmas, which starts off the last week of the old year, lasted 12 days and culminated with Epiphany, the sixth day of the new year. Christmas and Epiphany are a continuum: there is a fulfillment of the ancient prophecy in the old year that moves as inevitably as time itself into the promise of the new year that stretches out before us — the year of the Lord’s favor, “when the whole world [shall] give back the song that now the angels sing.”
Despite the frivolity we enjoy while singing it, perhaps there is something to be said for the song. There are, of course, various religious or secular interpretations of the symbolism of the gifts, but I would like to dwell on the sheer volume of them. By the last day of Christmas, the recipient of the true love’s generous gifts has received:
- 12 partridges in 12 pear trees
- 22 turtle doves
- 30 French hens
- 36 calling birds (or collie birds – blackbirds – maybe for a future pie?)
- 40 gold rings
- 42 geese a’laying (is one of them the goose that lays a golden egg?)
- 42 swans a’swimming
- 40 maids a’milking (do they bring their respective cows with them?)
- 36 ladies dancing
- 30 lords a’leaping
- 22 pipers piping
- 12 drummers drumming
There are 364 gifts in all – one for each day of the year but one!
In writing this I noticed for the first time that the numbers of the gifts in order form a “chiasmus,” a symmetrical graph, reminiscent of a Christmas tree:
By any standards these many gifts are overwhelmingly generous, whether or not they are appropriate and/or gratefully received. They seem ridiculous to us and we laugh as we run through the song as fast as we can by the end!
But if you look at a typical home in the United States on Christmas Day, you will see that our tradition is to shower each other with gifts that may be impractical, often too expensive for our means, and sometimes excessive. In his recent powerful book, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance remembers how his parents and neighbors routinely went into debt to “give their kids a nice Christmas,” giving them many more things (especially whatever was advertised on television as this year’s must-have toy) than they could afford, no matter that they often did not give their children adequate clothing or nutritious meals. Whether the gifts are excessively expensive or not, it is sadly true that most of our homes (even those where celebrating Christmas also involves church services and religious devotion) the religious meaning of given gifts is forgotten.
But if we celebrate all twelve days of Christmas, we realize that the next day after Christmas is Epiphany, when our thoughts turn to the mysterious Magi, watchers of the stars, who travel a long way to find the child “that is born King of the Jews. For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” They come bearing gifts! The joy of Christmas with its festivities and loving gifts to those closest to us, therefore, should not end on Christmas Day but last till January 5, and then explode into the expansive message of Epiphany. The Savior who is born is himself the gift of God to the entire world; everyone anywhere can see the star, not just certain shepherds in a field near Bethlehem to whom the angels appear.
The journey to follow the star was perhaps hard, as T.S. Eliot suggests in “The Journey of the Magi:”
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
But it ended in “great joy” for the searchers who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to honor the Christ child. What they brought home with them was perhaps more important than the gifts they brought: they realized that everything in their world, not just in Judea among the Jews, had changed forever. The message of the star was indeed, “Joy to the (whole) World!”
To return to the words of our silly song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” let’s consider what this well-loved lass or lad can do with all these excessive and unusual gifts? In the spirit of the Wise Men who arrived on January 6 and brought rather strange, impractical, but generous gifts to the baby Jesus, maybe she or he can give gifts the next day to friends and neighbors, or to a homeless shelter, or to anyone who might not have had a “a nice Christmas,” just as the March girls do in Little Women. But even then there will surely still be a lot of these 364 gifts left over, just like the abundance of wine at the wedding at Cana or the 12 baskets of bread gathered up after Jesus fed the crowd in the wilderness.
So what about having a party, inviting everyone on the highways and byways to share in the fun and music and food? For example, some places like New Orleans begin the festivities in the streets known as Carnival on January 6 and keep it going, in homes and in public, free to anyone who wants to join in, right up till the day before Lent called Mardi Gras. The good will and neighborliness are pervasive and contagious and just might happen anywhere. Would you like to join the dancing ladies and leaping lords — that is, would you like to come dance with us in the street? The pipers and drummers are playing and people are dressed up as swans or hens or anything! When we cut the king cake we are looking for the Baby Jesus just as the Wise Men did, and we have plenty of milk or milk punch to wash it down.
On the Eve of Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, why not gather up in gratitude all the abundance of love, joy and celebration that our Christmas faith has bestowed upon us and, wherever we live, think of some ways to take to the streets and share it with the world?
The Rev Dr. Jean McCurdy Meade is a retired priest in the Diocese of Louisiana.