When does Christmas start? When does it end? The liturgical calendar answers boldly that Christmas begins on the evening of the 24th of December and goes through the 6th of January. The same dates year in and year out. Twelve days of Christmas marked for years of tradition, “Twelve Days” isn’t just a song.
You know all through seminary I never found out why there were twelve days.
I’ve heard rumors that epiphany (the 6th) is about the presumed arrival time of the magi, the wise men in more ‘learned’ translations. I’ve heard rumors that the 25th of Christmas has to do with an ancient reasoning that martyrs always died exactly on a date 9 months after the date of their death regardless of how many years were in between. It’s far easier to get a good measure on the latter anyhow.
But honestly, those are rumors, and yet they shape so much of how we conceive of the birth of Christ. It’s actually pretty great if you ask me. The rumors could be right, and if not, we still need to commemorate the event of the word become flesh. Divinity in a manger is always going to be something enormously weird and disconcerting. But that’s our Jesus for you.
Twelve days to commemorate the weirdness and according to the song to swap mutually inconvenient and possibly hilarious gifts. We’ve never done the 12 day gift swap based solely upon the order of magnitude the gifts would take on.
But the result of the oft sung and seldom heeded song is this: we keep our trees up for a couple of weeks after Christmas day, and take them down on the 6th. There’s a finality to it that way, it shakes the abundance of mirth from our hearts and puts us back down on earth. Maybe it reminds us that the peace the joy the complete celebration of new life isn’t quite here yet.
Joseph and Mary probably had to hock the gold for a trip to Egypt, just to escape the carnage in Bethlehem.
No the birth of that infant, the suckling deity, kicked it all off – the coming of peace, the salvation of the world of men from the ambitions of men. But we kick back in to our regular lives on that 6th, part of an inaugurated but incomplete kingdom. Christmas celebrations re-anchor us to hope, like anchoring a boat amidst the storm, like riding the eye before we have to get back to the work of peacemaking and morning and hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of God.