Monday, December 27, 2010

The Twelve Days of Christmas

By Robin G. Jordan

Christmas is not just one day in the year but twelve. It may be the shortest season of the Church Year but it is with Easter the most important. During Christmastide we celebrate the nativity of our Saviour. During Eastertide we celebrate his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to the Father’s right hand side.

The Twelve Days of Christmas begin at sundown on Christmas Eve (December 24), First-night, the eve of December 25, or First-day, and conclude at sunset on Twelfth-day, the Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (January 6). They contain a number of feast days—Saint Stephen’s Day (December 26), Saint John the Evangelist Day (December 27), The Innocents’ Day (December 28), and the Circumcision of Christ (January 1) in addition to Christmas Day (December 25) and the Epiphany (January 6). Twelfth-night, the eve (January 5) of Twelfth-day was formerly celebrated with games and feasting. Scots celebrate Hogmanay, which falls on the last day of the year. It is one of the “Daft Days” as the Twelve Days of Christmas were sometimes called in Scotland. The celebration lasts through the night and well into the next day. In Scotland Hogmanay and Ne’erday celebrations eclipse Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in popularity. For 400 years the Kirk, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, discouraged the celebration of Christmas.

In South Louisiana where I lived and worked for many years, the Epiphany marks the beginning of the Carnival season, which climaxes on Mardi Gras Day, or Fat Tuesday. Anglicans outside of South Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast know the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. They sensibly spend the day gorging on pancakes, pork sausage, ham, and other culinary delights rather than overindulging in alcoholic beverages and scuffling in the gutter for beads, doubloons, and other trinkets that inebriated float-riders toss to the crowds along the Mardi Gras parade routes.

In South Louisiana it is traditional to celebrate the Epiphany with a King Cake, which is actually a kind of sweet bread. It may be stuffed with a variety of fillings and is usually decorated with brightly colored sugar or glaze in the colors of Carnival—purple, green, and gold. The ubiquitous plastic baby that was once found in every King Cake is now omitted as a choking hazard. Whoever found the baby in his piece of King Cake was expected to buy the next King Cake. (Before the invention of plastic a silver coin or a bean was used.) A King Cake is just one of a number of ways of celebrating the Epiphany.

Nowadays few churches have an Epiphany Service. Celebrating this feast day has fallen into desuetude. However, if the congregation is game, a candle-light Epiphany Service with a children’s procession, Epiphany carols, and the burning of the greens afterwards is a fitting conclusion to the Twelve Days of Christmas. The children wear crowns and robes and bear gifts and walk in procession to the crèche, led by a child holding a long pole with a star on top of it.

My mother’s parish, my old home parish, celebrated the Epiphany with a candle-light Epiphany Service one year when my nieces were girls. Parishioners brought their Christmas trees and we made a bonfire with them in the parking lot after the service. We warmed ourselves around the bonfire, drinking hot chocolate and munching happily on slices of King Cake. Celebrations of this kind foster a sense of community in a church. They not only bring church members and regular attenders together but they provide a church activity to which they can invite unchurched friends and which their unchurched friends might enjoy.


The Underground Pewster said...

Inebriated riders indeed! I resemble that remark.

As far as king cakes go, Mama always
told me that, if I got the baby, to swallow it!

Robin G. Jordan said...

What is fun is obtaining some extra babies at the bakery and inserting one in each slice. The object is to see who will own up to finding a baby and who will palm the baby and hide it from the rest. Then there is the spluttering denials and mortified faces when you tell them what you did.

The Underground Pewster said...