It’s typical these days to encounter “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in our culture: an uncountable number of musical variations (including the cast of Glee and Winnie the Pooh, go figure), CNN challenges to video each of the twelve “gifts,” analyses of the cost of the gifts, and so on.
What’s missing is the “why?” Why are these twelve days called out, and what’s their significance? Why twelve? When does the twelve-day countdown begin? Is it just a nonsense song about trying to buy love (sorry, Beatles) with a succession of greater and greater gifts?
Or, is it something more?
I learned quite a bit about the twelve days as I researched my novel. It turns out that the twelve days of Christmas has more to do with the historical Nativity of 2000 years ago than it does with shopping at Nordstrom’s for three French hens.
The original twelve days of Christmas is tied to the Feast of the Epiphany. In Christian religions, the Epiphany is the day that the baby Jesus was revealed to world as the Son of God. The very word “epiphany” comes from the ancient Greek word “epiphaneia” and can be translated to mean “appearance,” “manifestation” or “shining forth.” The Anglicized version became Epiphany.
Early Christians seem to have fixated upon the date of January 6th as the date of the original Epiphany – thus, with some quick math, we can see that the Epiphany comes twelve days after the birth of Christ on December 25th. Put it all together, and it’s easy to understand why the twelve days of Christmas would be commemorated in song. (Note that the Eastern Churches and other religion’s calendars vary a bit on the precise date and meaning, when the twelve days begin, conclude, etc. My vantage point is Western Christian.)
But there’s more to the twelve days and the Feast of the Epiphany than a simple measurement of the time it took until the Magi knocked on the manger door. Certainly, over the years Christians have attached religious symbols to each of the gifts mentioned in the song – ten Lords a-leaping, for instance, can be interpreted to mean the Ten Commandments – but to me, those metaphors seem a bit forced and miss the bigger question: what do the twelve days, and the associated Epiphany, mean to believers in the Christian faiths?
The twelve days do indeed count the Magi’s journey from the East to Bethlehem; but their trip is a journey of faith, a twelve-day quest to encounter the divine. The Magi follow a symbol in the sky for 12 days across the harsh desert in search of an answer to the mystery of the burning Star of Bethlehem. The Magi were not from Israel (in the ancient world known as Gentiles), so their journey and subsequent homage to the child of God is interpreted to be the “revelation” of a divine being to the entire world. It was a true leap of faith for these men to begin a difficult adventure into the unknown in search of truth and answers.
Could we be so bold today? If we pause to set aside all the lovely images we associate with the Nativity and the Magi, and consider the dangerous reality of their holy mission, we cannot help but be impressed. It must have been a long, arduous, and trying expedition to make. An excellent poem by T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi,” eloquently captures the drama and challenge of such a daunting undertaking. The Magi’s twelve-day journey was a test of faith, strength, and courage, a fitting trial for three men who would eventually come face to face with God.
On Christmas day, after the presents are unwrapped and the holiday hubbub has diminished, take a moment to ponder that the true season of Christmas is just beginning on December 25th. Consider that just over 2000 years ago, brave men conquered the desert – and their fears – to make perhaps the most important journey of all time. And don’t let January 6th just be another Thursday on your calendar: remember it and honor it as the day that the majesty and power of God was revealed to us all.
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This does not compute, as the Lost In Space robot would say. The Magi didn’t journey to Bethlehem, arriving when Jesus was 12 days old. Matthew 2:1-16 provides the full story with clues. Though they appeared to still be in Bethlehem, they were living in a house by the time the Magi arrived. Herod, in an attempt to destroy Jesus, had all males “two and under” killed, giving us a clue as to how long the star had shone, and probably how long these strangers from the “east” travelled.