A great stuff article correcting the misunderstanding of many people about the twelve days of Christmas on Past Elder by Terry Maher of St Paul LCMS in Omaha:
If you, like good king Wenceslaus in the song, look out on the Feast of Stephen — that’s 26 December, but we’ll get back to that — you might think Christmas is over. Already on the evening news on Christmas day the local stations are posting Christmas tree pick up sites and times. Some hang around for a week to give a festive atmosphere to New Year’s Eve and Day, then come down. On 2 January, Valentine’s Day candy is in the stores.
That fits with the world’s Christmas season. The church has a little different season going on. December is largely taken up with Advent. The idea is preparation there too, but not as in buying presents and food. It’s about a preparation of repentance for celebrating the coming in the flesh of God as Jesus who will die to save us from our sins, for the coming of faith in him into our hearts, and for the coming of Jesus again in glory to judge the living and the dead on the Last Day.
For which reason the colour of Advent is purple, the colour of royalty and also of repentance. Not his coming in history or our hearts or his return is prepared for by buying stuff.
Christmas Is Not Just One Day!
The church’s celebration of Christmas does not begin with December and end on Christmas with New Year’s tacked on. It begins on Christmas and continues for several days! Our Christmas manger scenes often have the “humble” shepherds and the “important” visitors — called Magi, Wise Men, or Kings most often — all there. But as the story reads, the Three Kings were not there at Christmas! They arrived twelve days later, 6 January, which we celebrate as Epiphany. These twelve days from Christmas through Epiphany are the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Now how did that happen? No-body knows. The thing is, Epiphany is a much older feast than Christmas, yet is now largely forgotten by most, lost in the shuffle by many, and celebrated by a few. Now how did THAT happen?
The Original Christmas.
Well, to me it looks like this. By the late fourth century after Christ, 6 January as the Epiphany existed. The earliest known reference dates from 361, and in those days the references indicate not just the appearance of the Three Kings — epiphany is an English form of a Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation” — but rather the appearance or manifestation, the epiphany, of God, including his birth!
It’s not that there wasn’t Christmas, it’s that this is “Christmas” as well as a celebration all the other events of the young Jesus up to and including his Baptism and his first public miracle at the wedding in Cana. A very big day!
Developments In The Western Church.
In the Western Church, these events began to be spun off from Epiphany. By the sixth century 25 December had become the celebration of his birth. His baptism began to be celebrated after Epiphany, so Epiphany itself in the West fairly early on narrowed its focus to the arrival of the Three Kings (Magi, etc.), who, not being Jews but Gentiles, give it the significance of the appearance or manifestation of the Messiah to the Gentiles.
I’m of English descent, but I was adopted by people of Irish descent, and my Dad, growing up pre-conciliar RC, always referred to Epiphany as “Little Christmas”, an Irish custom from when 6 January in the pre-Gregorian calendar was also Christmas. In later life I was to find out this is one echo of all the stuff mentioned above. Growing up, decorations were always left up through Epiphany, and there was one more “Christmas” gift. I did the same in my house now. And I’ll post about Los Tres Reyes (Spanish for The Three Kings) on 6 January, having been culturally adopted by the Puerto Rican contingent at university.
Developments In The Eastern Church.
This did not happen in the Eastern Church, where it retained its original character much longer, with many places much later adopting 25 December as the feast of his birth but keeping the celebration of his baptism on Epiphany, and in a few places yet keeping the Nativity on this day. And there’s the added complication that 6 January in the older (Julian, as in Julius Caesar) calendar still used liturgically by the Eastern Church is 19 January in the Gregorian (as in Pope Gregory) calendar used in the West and now pretty much world wide as a convention.
In the Eastern Church the day is more commonly called the Theophany — divine appearance or divine manifestation — and is considered the third most important feast in the church’s observance, Easter (Pascha) being first and Pentecost second. There ain’t no Twelve Days of Christmas for our brethren in the Eastern Church, it’s a Western thing, but on the other hand Theophany is more in line with the original of what we in the West call Epiphany, if we remember it to call it anything at all.
And Then Came Vatican II, Oy.
And to complicate it further, after a millennium and one half of usage, Rome, ever at the ready to tinker with the very tradition it says it conserves, decided at its last council, Vatican II in the 1960s, to make it a moveable feast, not on 6 January but on the Sunday after the first Saturday in January. So, if you listen to Rome (and if you listen to Rome, quit!) there ain’t no Twelve Days of Christmas in the West now either! Nice going, guys.
For us confessional Lutherans — those who seek to hold to the catholic, as distinct from the Catholic, faith and church — while our latest service book, Lutheran Service Book, is infected with the latest Roman virus (please support research that a cure may be found in our time!) it appears that Epiphany has survived as 6 January.
So What’s This Feast of Stephen Thing?
“Good King Wenceslaus looked out, on the Feast of Stephen”. Getting back to that, you think Epiphany got lost in the shuffle, what about this Feast of Stephen? It’s 26 December, the day after Christmas. Why? Well, the Stephen remembered on this day is the first recorded martyr for the Christian faith, in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. It is the custom in the church to commemorate someone not on the day of his earthly birth but the day of his birth to eternal life — generally called death in the world — but in a case like Stephen the date is not known. When that happens a date will be chosen for some other reason associated with the person. For Stephen, the first person known to have been born to eternal life by martyrdom for his faith is celebrated right after the earthly birth of him who came to make eternal life available to us.
So Who’s This Wenceslaus, Why Is He Good and Why Is He Looking Out?
Wow, has this guy got a story. Right here, call it ironic, coincidence, or one of those divine consistencies that look like loose ends until you know what they are, but he ended up being a martyr for the Christian faith just like the first one, Stephen, on whose feast he looked out.
Here’s a short version of the rest. Wenceslaus, also Wenceslas, is English for his name Vaclav. He was functionally king of Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. But, as he was backed by the German Holy Roman Empire, his title was not actually king but duke, which is just below a king.
This was first via the Duke of Saxony and King of the Germans Henry the Fowler/Heinrich der Vogler. But then via his son Otto I, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on 2 February 962 by Pope, aka bishop of Rome, John XII — who, btw, then turned on Otto. So Otto went back to Rome and had a layman elected pope instead as Leo VII — Otto being used to naming bishops and abbots. Then, when John staged a comeback but died and left Benedict V on the papal throne, Otto went back to Rome yet again to get rid of Benedict and make them promise to quit electing popes without the Emperor’s (his) OK! There’s some hermeneutic of continuity for ya, to paraphrase another Pope Benedict, XVI. Otto was the first clear Holy Roman Emperor since Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great, Karl der Grosse), who was crowned by the bishop of Rome Leo III on Christmas in 800 the first Imperator Augustus in the West since the Fall of Rome on 4 September 476 .
Wenceslaus being backed by such a power did not sit well with some Bohemians, including in his own family, all of them caught between changing religions along with their entire social order.
He’s called “good” because he stayed with the Christian faith of his grandmother who raised him, St Ludmilla, who was herself converted by Saints Cyril and Methodius no less, the “Apostles to the Slavs”. His brother Boleslaus (Boleslav) though stayed with the native Bohemian religion of their mother Drahomira, who had Ludmilla killed. Boleslav didn’t like the Germans or their state-run Christian church. The martyrdom happened when Boleslav arranged to have Vaclav killed, then took the throne. But, he ended up having to work with the Germans anyway and then his son, also named Boleslav, became Christian and took over from him and established the bishop’s seat in Prague!
The irony, coincidence, or divine consistency continues to our time. This man Vaclav who in his own time was killed for selling out to the Germans and their power and new religion is now the patron saint of the Czech Republic, which in 2000 established his feast day of 28 September as Czech Statehood Day, a national holiday.
Yeah, that’s a short version. Oh, and what was he doing looking out on the Feast of Stephen? Checking things out after he woke up. But the rest of the story isn’t told in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song. That was first published in England in 1780. Despite recent speculation, there is no evidence the gifts were code words for Catholic catechesis under persecution. Lyrical peculiarities come from its being an adaptation of a French song. It was introduced in the US in 1910, as part of the Christmas programme at Downer in Milwaukee, now part of Lawrence University.
The rest of the story is told in the carol by John Mason Neale, same guy who wrote O Come, O Come Emmanuel based on the O Antiphons posted about earlier. Small world, huh? Or another of those consistencies. Ain’t it great when loose ends become consistencies!
Anyway, good duke Vaclav spotted a guy scrounging for food and asked his page where the guy lived. He then set out with his page to bring the man and his family some aid. The page started faltering due to the cold and snow, but when he followed in Vaclav’s footsteps found the ground warm to his feet. Now how’s that for being, uh, ablaze!
We Still Got ‘em, The Twelve Days of Christmas!!
Guess what, you can still follow in the good king’s footsteps. Neale’s carol concludes:
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
So let’s get on with the Twelve Days of Christmas like, give him his due, Good King Wenceslaus!
NOW is when all the fun and festivities are supposed to happen! LEAVE those decorations up, right on up through Twelfth Night! That’s the night of 5-6 January, in case you weren’t counting, and yes, it’s that from which the title of Shakespeare’s great play is taken. So far, Twelfth Night has not been retitled First Sunday After The First Saturday In January Eve, though who knows, sillier revisionism happens all the time. Maybe even GIVE A GIFT to someone special for Epiphany, which in some places is the gift giving day, not Christmas, just as God gave himself to us and the Three Kings brought gifts to him. BAKE A CAKE; that’s how Kings Cake started and still is done in some places. HAVE FRIENDS OVER — you get the idea!
And like good king Wenceslaus, DO SOMETHING TO HELP SOMEONE IN NEED! If you don’t know someone in need, ask your pastor, he will. You don’t have to live in a country that has Boxing Day to box up something helpful and give it to someone in need. This custom began because boxes for collection of stuff for the poor were collected in mediaeval times at churches for distribution on the feast of Stephen, inspired by good Duke Vaclav’s act of charity.
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
The appearance or manifestation of God is just too big to contain in one day!!
And therefore the church doesn’t, but extends the celebration of God’s coming among us over twelve days, so don’t let the world, or, sadly, some entities called church, take a bit of it away from you!
Textual Note: I am most honoured that The Lutheran Witness asked if they could print this post as an article in the December 2010 issue. That article is not the same as this post, but was based on the 2009 blog version of this post by their excellent editorial staff. The print version was approved by me, and you can read it online. Generally I revise the annual posts in my Blogoral Calendar somewhat from year to year, so this year’s post is not the exact text of the printed version either.