Everybody has heard of the 12 Days of Christmas. In fact, we’ve all probably sung about them.
But what are the 12 Days of Christmas, and who actually celebrates them?
What are the 12 Days of Christmas?
For more than 1,400 years, the 12 days of Christmas has referred to the time in the church year set aside to celebrate Christ’s birth. (The song came much later.)
What might surprise you is that the 12 days of Christmas actually begin on Christmas Day and go through January 5. The last night—known as Twelfth Night—is celebrated in many parts of Western Christianity. Friends and family gather for a final party on Twelfth Night where they exchange gifts and take down Christmas decorations.
The person who originally wrote the song wrote it for those 12 days, December 25–January 5, not December 13–25. Those days fall within Advent.
What is Advent?
The season of Advent—the three to four weeks leading up to Christmas—is a time of preparation for celebrating Christ’s birth. On this side of redemption history, it’s a time set aside for thinking about our need of Christ and waiting for his return.
Advent is an opportunity for us to enter into the narrative of Christ’s life—the narrative the Church year is based on. In that timeline, Advent is the time of hopeful anticipation before Christ’s birth.
How can Christians observe Advent and celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas?
You may be looking for a new way of approaching Christmas. And maybe what you are truly looking for is an old approach.
There are many Advent devotionals and reflections out there that you can use as a guide for reflection and worship in this season.
You might enjoy these video devotionals with reflections on Scripture from professors like Peter Leithart, Craig Blomberg, and Kevin Vanhoozer. (For Advent, look for the reflections on “Anticipating Christ.”)
Here’s an excerpt from one of those devotionals by Dr. Ken Deeks on Philippians 4:4–7:
Now, between these last two exhortations—one negative (do not be anxious) and one positive (pray about everything)—Paul inserts the little phrase “the Lord is at hand,” or “the Lord is near.” Interpreters differ whether Paul intends this indicative to conclude his command to not be anxious or introduce his command to pray about everything. Does he intend to say, “Rejoice in the Lord always and let your reasonable moderation be known to all, because the coming of the Lord is near,” or does he intend to say “because the Lord is always near, always with us, and we are always in his presence, don’t be anxious about anything”?
Or does he intend the reader to see both? Either way, the outcome is peace. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” These are the marks of the Christian disciple: joy, moderation, prayer, thanksgiving, and peace. All of these virtues spring from living in the awareness that the Lord is near both now by His Spirit and in the future by His coming again.
Again, going through a devotional like this or simply setting aside some time to reflect on your need of Christ and to hope in his coming are appropriate ways to observe Advent. You can probably find churches with Advent services in your area as well.
For the 12 Days of Christmas, you have plenty of time to decide how to celebrate, and you don’t have to buy a partridge and a pear tree.
In my family, we can’t afford 12 gifts for each person, but we can afford enough gifts for everyone to get something on Christmas Day and then one person to receive a gift each day until the season of Christmas ends on January 5, when we throw a party.
If you’re looking for a new way to think about Christmas, this is one way to celebrate. And it isn’t just one person’s invention—it’s been a part of the Christian Church for a very long time. If you’re a Christian, it’s part of the broad and rich heritage that is yours to take up and run with for appreciating Christ in the season leading up to his birth and beyond.