The Twelve Days

Rogier van der Weyden (Flemish school, 1400 – 1464), Adoration of the Magi.

Christmas has more than a ring of truth about it.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

No need to stress about not having posted your Christmas cards before December 25: there are actually 12 days of Christmas in which to do it – or 13 if you count the Great Day itself.  So don’t sweat.  There is still plenty of time to fulfil the annual round of greetings. 

You’ve all heard the famous Christmas carol – or snatches from it – “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.  It’s first two verses go like this: 

On the first day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
A Partridge in a Pear Tree 

On the second day of Christmas
my true love sent to me:
2 Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree 

It is the kind of song we call a “round”.  This one grows and expands as an ardent lover sends ever more sumptuous gifts to his beloved on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. 

But what are these “Twelve Days”?  Where do they come from? Isn’t it just Christmas Day and that’s it? 

Well, no, and here’s the shockingly arcane truth of the matter: it’s all about the liturgical calendars which determine the cycle of traditional Christian worship both East and West.

“Liturgical”? What’s that? 

It comes from the Greek word liturgia meaning the customary forms of public worship practiced by members of particular religious communities. 

Christmas calendars

According to the Gregorian calendar, which sets in motion the annual cycle of worship in the western world, the Christmas Season lasts for 12 days after Christmas Day (December 25) and culminates in the wonderful Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 — a feast sadly neglected in the Anglo-Saxon world. 

The same 12 days occurs in the Julian calendar – the one that governs the liturgical life of the Orthodox and Oriental Catholic Churches. “The Nativity according to the Flesh of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ”, as it is here magnificently named, will be celebrated on 7 January and the Epiphany — or “The Holy Theophany of Our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ” — on January 19. 

“Epiphany”? “Theophany”? More Greek? 

Yes, “Epiphany” and “Theophany” are Greek in origin.  The terms mean much the same, but the older, classical Greek word theophaneia is the more interesting and precise from a religious perspective. It refers specifically to the “appearance of a god before the world”.

The only — and important — difference between the epiphany feasts east and west is that the Gregorian Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the adoration of the Christ Child by the Magi while the Holy Theophany celebrates the Baptism of Jesus Christ by St John in the River Jordan. Both mark the “appearance before the world” of the God-Man Jesus Christ: the former before the kings of the gentiles; the latter before the people of Israel. 

As with so many traditional practices, there are different ways of counting the Twelve Days – a bit like westerners crossing themselves from left to right and easterners from right to left.  

Some count Christmas Day as the First Day, with the Twelfth being Epiphany Eve (5 January). Others count December 26 (The Feast of St. Stephen) as the First Day, with The Epiphany itself (January 6) as the Twelfth. Both would be right. 

By way of an aside, there’s another Christmas curiosity with the Gregorian calendar — and that is its “second” or “little” epiphany on which the western Church celebrates the Baptism of Christ by St John.  This occurs on the Octave of the Epiphany, or one week later, on January 13.  

So, on the 19th (or 20th) day after Christmas, there are still strong echoes in the Gregorian calendar and its associated ritual practices of the great festival which begins, and presides over, the season that follows upon Christmas Day. Given 13 days of feasting, it is not surprising that a ‘holy hangover’ persists even unto the 20th day. 

Anyway, that’s the background to the carol and the Twelve Days. 

Christmas reading 

On Christmas Eve my eye fell on a striking remark in a splendid article from the pen of Peter Craven (“Christmas images lift our minds”, The Australian, December 24, 2013). 

Everytime I spot a Peter Craven article, I read it through and through. What a marvel he is with his learning and his pen! This was no exception. 

In it, Craven remarks of the “unvarnished simplicity of the gospel narratives of the birth of Christ” that the “great German scholar Erich Auerbach says influences our idea of narrative because it sounds factual.” 

“… because it sounds factual”? When it really isn’t? Would it not be too deeply paradoxical that something false should become the literary model for narratives that purport to be true to life?

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a clergyman talking down from his pulpit to us simpleton worshippers about how the gospels aren’t history but “proclamation”, I’d be a rich man.

I defer to Auerbach and Craven on the literary point: a narrative to be credible has to sound as if it is true.  And, certainly, the gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus work masterfully on that level. They do not, however, merely ring true; the authors of the birth narratives make the claim that they are true. 

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a clergyman talking down from his pulpit to us simpleton worshippers about how the gospels aren’t history but “proclamation”, I’d be a rich man. 

It’s pretty obvious even to laymen, unlearned as we are in the things of God, that the gospels aren’t history books.  But they do purport to tell of things that really did happen and which form part, not of our mythos, but of our history. 

For sure, the “unvarnished simplicity” of which Craven speaks operates as a natural inducement to accept the birth story of Jesus as founded upon the evidence of reliable witnesses. There is, however, something more operating here than “unvarnished simplicity”.   

History buffs

The Gospel of St Luke, for example, which treats extensively of the birth of Jesus, makes in parallel with its religious “message” a specifically historical point. Luke opens his Gospel thus – and I quote from the Knox translation to which Craven happily referred:

“ … I too, most noble Theophilus, have resolved to put the story in writing as it befell, having first traced it carefully from its beginnings …

“In the days when Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest called Zachary of Abia’s turn of office ….” 

In other words, says Luke, I have researched the story and I will begin it here at this particular time and place. 

Again, in his second chapter, Luke opens with another precise statement of historical context: 

“It happened that a decree went out at this time from the emperor Augustus enjoining that the whole world should be registered; this register was the first one made during the time when Cyrinus was governor of Syria.” 

And yet again, at the beginning of his third chapter, where he writes about the mission of John the Baptist as the precursor of Christ’s public life, Luke writes this striking passage: 

“It was in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius’ reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, when Herod was prince in Galilee, his brother Philip in the Ituraean and Trachonitid region, and Lysinius in Abilina, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas, that the word of God came upon John, the son of Zachary, in the desert.”

The other gospel that deals with the infancy narrative is that of Matthew – the very acme of that simplicity which captured Auerbach’s attention.  However, even poor, spare, and disarming Matthew makes no less a claim to historical accuracy than Luke. 

“Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Juda, in the days of king Herod.”

 I can buy that – and I wish you all the joy of it! 

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