Twelve Days of Christmas

One of the delights of studying for the priesthood in Rome (many decades ago now) was the opportunity to experience the reality of the complete Christmas season: one that did not begin with a mass-market assault on Thanksgiving evening and build to a consuming crescendo on Christmas Day, but instead began with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and continued for eleven days after December 25.

During this time – the “Twelve Days” of Christmas carol fame – the Church celebrates many significant feast days that help us to go deeper into the celebration of Our Lord’s nativity and our understanding of his coming to secure the means of our salvation. Through his birth of the Virgin Mary, the new Eve who by her Yes to God and His archangel became the means of ushering our Savior into the world, Christ began his earthly journey to his death for us on Cavalry some 33 years later, and his resurrection from the dead three days after that.

But from Christmas to the Baptism of Our Lord we are still marking the infancy of Christ’s incarnation among us. The feast days that occur during this season have various things to say to us, some consistent with tidings of comfort and joy, and some more alarming.

Let’s take a look at the Twelve Days of Christmas with a view to how families, our friends, and we can celebrate them and prolong them to our spiritual benefit – and maybe be the last person on your block this year to throw out the Christmas tree!

Although the stores will be moving on as soon as they toss out the wreaths and tinsel after briefly shutting down for Christmas Day, we should use this time to prepare for a new year of joyful, heart-to-heart sharing of our faith with family, friends, and coworkers. Last but most important, our aim is to be alter Christus – another Christ – to all those who surround us day by day.

The Christmas octave opens on December 25 each year. The second day of the octave celebrates St. Stephen, the first martyr, a vivid reminder that Christ came to earth to die and that we too must be ready to suffer and even surrender our lives if need be someday for our faith. In our own time, we are confronted with the knowledge of the great number of our fellow Christians who are actively undergoing persecution, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia. We pray for their steadfastness under threat of imprisonment, torture, and death, and we pray that, like Stephen, our embattled fellow-Christians will also be capable of forgiving and willing the conversion and salvation of their persecutors.

"Advent and Triumph of Christ" by Hans Memling (1480)
“Advent and Triumph of Christ” by Hans Memling (1480)

On December 27 we celebrate St. John the Evangelist, the “apostle whom Jesus loved,” and the only apostle who did not die a martyr’s death, although tradition tells us he was subjected to physical persecution and the setting for the Book of Revelation is the island of Patmos, to which he was exiled. Of course, we also know that St. John was the author of the fourth Gospel and the one to whom Our Lord entrusted the care of his mother.

On the 28th, we shift back to contemplation of the Holy Family in those early days in Bethlehem. What a scene, as they prepare to take flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s attempt to slay the newborn King! This Feast of the Holy Innocents is also a reminder of how, in our country, marriage is under attack and helpless babies are massacred daily through abortion throughout our country.

The fifth day of the Christmas season marks the feast of another martyr, St. Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was killed because he refused to give in to a king (Henry II) who defied the Church of Rome. As another Thomas (St. Thomas More) put it who defied another Henry (Henry VIII) some centuries later, he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” Here is another all-too-relevant example of someone willing to bear the price of fidelity to his faith.

On January 1, we celebrate the solemnity of the Holy Mother of God. As Chesterton wrote, we serve a mother who seems to grow more beautiful as new generations rise up and call her blessed.

This year the Baptism of the Lord falls on January 4. This is a wonderful moment for us to give thanks for the sacrament of Baptism that makes us forever a child of God called to eternal glory with him in heaven.

If you are a parent, you might explain to your children the significance of each day of the octave, so they can better experience the richness of our Church’s liturgical year. Perhaps you can also use online venues or EWTN to see the various liturgies of the season taking place in Rome and presided over by our Holy Father Pope Francis.

Make this Christmas the best ever by following day by day the various feast days during the twelve days of Christmas; as you enter into their meaning, they will help you grow deeper in love of that child in the manger who came to save us from Satan’s power. Remember, any Christmas, including this one, could be your last: We do not know the day or the hour when we will be called to our permanent home in heaven, so make the best of this opportunity to celebrate the birth of our Savior!

Fr. C. John McCloskey (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.